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New Discovery Cuts Brainwashing Time in Half

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

The frontiers of science continue to expand:

In experiments on mice, scientists rewired the circuits of the brain and changed the animals' bad memories into good ones. The rewriting of the memory wasn't done with drugs but by using light to control the activity of brain cells. While science is a long way from achieving a similar feat in people, it adds to a body of research that is starting to uncover the physiological basis of memory.

Yes, I know what you're wondering. And the answer is yes:

The researchers said they were able to do the opposite as well—change a pleasurable memory in mice into one associated with fear.

So I guess that wraps up both Brave New World and 1984 all in one nice, neat package. What could go wrong?

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Quote of the Day: Let's Just Drop a Few Bombs and See What Happens

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

From Bill Kristol, during an appearance on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham's show, bringing his megawatt analytic powers to bear on the problem of ISIS in Iraq:

What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.

You can't make this stuff up. We liberals often accuse folks like Kristol of mindlessly advocating military action all the time, no matter what. But we're exaggerating, aren't we? Nobody literally wants to unleash an air campaign just to see what happens. Nobody just casually ignores the possible drawbacks. That's ridiculous! Why do we insist on juvenile caricatures like this?

I don't know. Why do we?

White Privilege? What White Privilege?

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Here's the latest from the annals of criminal justice in America:

Beverly Hills police officials said Tuesday that it was "extremely unfortunate" that officers handcuffed and detained an African American film producer who was in the city to attend a pre-Emmy party.

Producer Charles Belk "matched the clothing and physical characteristics" of a suspected bank robber when he was pulled over by officers on Friday evening....“Hey, I was ‘tall,’ ‘bald,’ a ‘male’ and ‘black,’ so I fit the description.”

Come on, Charles! Buck up. Mistakes can happen. I'm sure the Beverly Hills PD would have treated a white guy who fit the description of a bank robber exactly the same way. In fact, I'll bet this happens all the time to Bill O'Reilly.

Chart of the Day: The Federal Deficit Is In Pretty Good Shape These Days

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

You already know this—don't you?—but just to refresh your memories, here's the latest projection of the federal deficit from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, for the entire next decade CBO figures that the deficit will be running at a very manageable 3 percent of GDP, right in line with historical averages. Be sure to show this to all your friends who are consumed with deficit hysteria. There's really not much reason to panic about this.

Now, CBO's forecast doesn't take into account future booms or busts in the economy, since they can't predict those. And as the chart makes crystal clear, that's what causes big changes in the deficit. It's the economy, stupid, not runaway spending. When times are good, the deficit shrinks. When times are bad, it gets worse. If you really want to avoid big deficits in the future, stop obsessing about cutting spending on the poor, and instead spend some time obsessing about economic policies that will help grow the economy.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 27, 2014

Wed Aug. 27, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

The Class of 2015 at West Point receive their class rings as they enter their final academic year. (US Army Photos by John Pellino/ USMA DPTMS VI)

40 Percent of Restaurant Workers Live in Near-Poverty

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

It isn't just fast-food empires that rely on a low-paid, disempowered, and quite-often impoverished workforce. As a stomach-turning new report (PDF viewable here) from the Economic Policy Institute shows, the entire restaurant industry hides a dirty little labor secret under the tasteful lighting of the dining room.

Here are some highlights:

• The restaurant industry is a massive and growing source of employment. It accounts for more than 9 percent of US private-sector jobs—up from a little more than 7 percent in 1990. That's nearly a 30 percent gain.

• The industry's wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers' median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn't budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers

• Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that's double the rate of nonrestaurant workers.

• Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is "cashiers and counter attendants" (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry's workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, "chefs and head cooks," offers a median wage of just $12.34.

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, "blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry," while "Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations," the report found.

• Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for nonrestaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of nonchef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don't receive the rights of citizenship.

Thus you can't opt out of supporting deplorable labor conditions for the people who feed you simply by refusing to pass through the Golden Arches or to enter the Burger King's realm.

So what can you do? One thing is to seek out restaurants that explicitly pay their workers a living wage. Two I can think of offhand: Austin's Black Star Co-op, a cooperatively owned gastro-pub that's managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." Another is Chapel Hill's excellent Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe. I'd love to hear about more examples in comments.

But these examples are vanishingly rare. The only real solution to the industry's bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative, the EPI report makes clear. That means reforms like a much higher minimum wage and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. Anyone who wants to learn more about working conditions in our nation's eateries should read Saru Jayaraman's outstanding 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. (Read the Mother Jones review here.)

And just for fun, here's the Mother Jones fast-food wage calculator, which will give you a sense of what some workers are up against:

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Obama's Iraq Policy Has Been Pretty Masterly

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

I'm not a diehard supporter of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Some of his actions I just plain disagree with: the surge in Afghanistan, the enormous increase in drone use, his almost inhuman patience in putting up with Bibi Netanyahu's nearly open contempt for him. Then there are other actions of his that were arguably justifiable but have worked out less well than he hoped. However, they mostly represent very, very tough problems. And foreign policy is hard—especially now. Almost nobody gets even a small fraction of what they want out of it.

That said, the relentless criticism of Obama's approach toward ISIS strikes me as unusually shortsighted. As near as I can tell, he's handled it almost perfectly so far. If we had offered air support to destroy ISIS six months or a year ago, it probably would have made things worse. Iraq flatly wasn't able to provide the ground troops to complement an air campaign, and America would have shared in the inevitable fiasco. We also would have been explicitly bound to Nouri al-Maliki and his policies, which were the very ones responsible for the rise of ISIS in the first place. The outcome of all this would have been the worst of all possible worlds for American interests.

Instead, Obama allowed Maliki to fail on his own, and then used the leverage of promised American air assistance to engineer his ouster. Needless to say, this hardly guarantees eventual success against ISIS, but is there really any question that it was a necessary precondition for success? I don't think so. Maliki never would have left unless he was forced out, and it was plain that his brutally sectarian governing style was fueling the insurgency, not halting it. He had to leave.

The alternative to Obama's strategy wasn't more aggressive action. That would have been disastrous. Nor would it have made a difference if Obama had left a few troops in Iraq back in 2009. Nor would stronger intervention in Syria have made a difference. It might even have made things worse. The truth is simpler. There's no single reason for the rise of ISIS, but there is a single primary reason: Nouri al-Maliki. Obama saw that clearly and kept his eye on what was important, working patiently and cold-bloodedly toward engineering Maliki's departure. It was hardly a perfect plan, and messiness was always inevitable. Nonetheless, it was the best plan available. Because of it, there's now at least a chance of defeating ISIS.

UPDATE: Does "masterly" go too far? Maybe so. But I was trying to attract attention to my main point: the ISIS threat couldn't even be addressed until Iraq's political dysfunction was addressed first. Unlike a lot of people, Obama recognized that and stuck to a toughminded approach that focused on getting rid of Maliki instead of getting distracted by endless calls for a stronger intervention before Maliki was gone. It wasn't easy, but it was the smart thing to do.

Can the new government fight ISIS more effectively? There's no way of knowing yet. But at least they've been given a chance.

Is Europe's Central Bank Finally Getting Worried About Deflation?

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Brad DeLong notes that Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's central bank, went off text in his speech at Jackson Hole. Here's his summary of Draghi's extended ad-lib:

The speech text says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. The decline in inflation has not led to any decline in expectations of inflation.
  3. THE ECB will, if necessary, within its mandate, use QE and other policies to keep expectations of inflation from declining.

The speech as delivered says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. My usual line is that the decline in inflation is due to temporary factors that will be reversed.
  3. That explanation is now long in the tooth: the longer "temporary" lasts the greater the danger.
  4. In fact, it is too late to "safeguard the firm anchoring of inflation expectations".
  5. Inflationary expectations have already declined.
  6. We will use all the tools we have to reverse this.

Is this deviation a mere line wobble....Is this deviation an audience effect....Or does it signal a recognition on Draghi's part that the Eurozone is heading for a triple dip, and that if he doesn't assemble a coalition to do much more very quickly to boost aggregate demand we will have to change the name "The Great Recession" to something including the D-word, and he will go down in history as the worst central banker since the 1930s?

I would like to know...

I suppose we'd all like to know. The Germans better start taking this stuff seriously pretty soon. They can't stick their heads in the sand and live in the past forever.

Wyoming Is Thinking About Accepting Medicaid Expansion After All

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Michael Hiltzik passes along the news that Wyoming's governor is the latest traitor to the cause of denying health care to poor people no matter what the cost:

The reason for Wyoming's wavering is clear: It's money.

The Health Department says Medicaid expansion could save the state $50 million or more if it expands the program, for which the federal government will pay at least 90%. Meanwhile, Wyoming hospitals say they're losing more than $200 million a year in uncompensated care for people without insurance.

The state Legislature has rejected the expansion, but Republican Gov. Matt Mead has been saying it's time to pack up. He's entering negotiations with the feds for a way to expand Medicaid next year, covering as many as 17,600 low-income residents.

I imagine that before very much longer, most of the other Midwest holdouts will go ahead and accept Medicaid expansion too. That will leave only the hard-core holdouts of the Old South, where the poor are apparently especially undeserving. I guess there must be some kind of difference between poor people in the Midwest and poor people in the South. I wonder what it could be?

Ukraine Claims it Has Captured Russian Soldiers

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 10:18 AM EDT

Ukraine claims that it now has proof that Russian soldiers have been involved in fighting on Ukrainian soil:

Ukraine released video footage on Tuesday of what it said were 10 captured Russian soldiers, raising tensions as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for talks later in the day with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Petro O. Poroshenko.

....The release of the videos and the high-level talks came a day after Ukraine accused Russia of sending an armored column across the border, prompting Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the United States ambassador to Ukraine, to express alarm on Twitter. “The new columns of Russian tanks and armor crossing into Ukraine indicates a Russian-directed counteroffensive may be underway. #escalation,” he wrote.

....“Everything was a lie. There were no drills here,” one of the captured Russians, who identified himself as Sergey A. Smirnov, told a Ukrainian interrogator. He said he and other Russians from an airborne unit in Kostroma, in central Russia, had been sent on what was described initially as a military training exercise but later turned into a mission into Ukraine. After having their cellphones and identity documents taken away, they were sent into Ukraine on vehicles stripped of all markings, Mr. Smirnov said.

This kind of thing represents a cusp of some kind. If it's true, Putin has to decide pretty quickly whether to gamble everything on an outright invasion, or whether to back off. If it turns out to be a Ukrainian invention, Putin has to decide whether to use it as a casus belli. These are dangerous times.

UPDATE: Apparently Russia has admitted the soldiers are theirs:

Sources in Moscow have admitted that a number of men captured inside Ukraine were indeed serving Russian soldiers, but said they crossed the border by mistake...."The soldiers really did participate in a patrol of a section of the Russian-Ukrainian border, crossed it by accident on an unmarked section, and as far as we understand showed no resistance to the armed forces of Ukraine when they were detained," a source in Russia's defence ministry told the RIA Novosti agency.

Uh huh. I suppose Putin will now claim that detaining the soldiers is an act of war unless they're immediately released.