Blogs

Some Llamas Escaped and Went on a High-Speed Chase and It Was Amazing

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 4:29 PM EST

Llamas! Arizona! Internet!

This is a recipe for delight!

Anyway, I don't know any details about this story other than llamas escaped (presumably from some sort of pen?) in Arizona and then they ran free and a chase began and the world was caught up in it, man, and it was like the '60s in Europe and people were riding Vespas and falling in love and hair was blowing in the wind and hot people were wearing leather jackets and berets and some were smoking to signify their rebellious nature and everyone was singing rock and roll and saying "Viva la llama!"

Okay, a lot of that didn't happen but the llamas did escape and there was a chase and it was amazing. Then they were caught.

Watch the entire wonderful epic below:


Bye bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee

but the levee was dry

and good ol' boys were drinking

whiskey and rye, singing

"they caught the llamas."

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The FCC Just Approved Net Neutrality

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 1:40 PM EST

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and thereby uphold strong net neutrality regulations.

Advocates applauded the passage as a victory for internet consumers, blocking what had been described as the creation of internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay more for high-speed service.

The vote came down to a 3-2 margin, with dissents from Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajut Pai. 

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free open access to the internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said prior to the vote.

"The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules," he added.

In recent months, net neutrality has emerged as a divisive political issue, with fierce opposition against regulations coming from Republicans and broadband providers alike. President Obama's announcement back in November fully supporting net neutrality's preservation prompted members of the GOP to denounce the potential move.

 

Loretta Lynch Now Likely to Win Confirmation as Attorney General

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 12:19 PM EST

It looks like Loretta Lynch is likely to be approved as our next Attorney General:

Eight Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee, including chairman Chuck Grassley, opposed Lynch’s confirmation after what Democrats criticised as a record-long delay in appointing the first African American woman to the top law enforcement job in the US.

But Lynch was backed by three moderate Republicans to pass through a committee vote on Thursday, 12-8. She is now likely, over the coming days, to scrape through a vote in the full Senate to succeed current attorney general Eric Holder, who announced his resignation last September.

The three "moderate" Republicans who voted to confirm Lynch were Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake. Flake is probably a legitimate moderate, but it's an odd world where Hatch and Graham are on that list too. In today's GOP, though, they really are moderates. That tells you most of what you need to know about the state of national politics these days.

Immigration Fight Is a Loser Because Republican Hearts Aren't Really Into It

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 12:06 PM EST

Our story so far: Last year President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration. Conservatives went ballistic and threatened to refuse to pass a budget—thus shutting down the government—unless the budget defunded the immigration plan. They eventually gave in on that, but only because they were promised a second bite at the apple. The resulting compromise funded every department except the Department of Homeland Security, which was given only short-term funding. That now has to be reauthorized, and this time around conservatives are threatening to refuse to pass a DHS budget—thus shutting down the department—unless it defunds the immigration plan.

But Democrats have been unified in refusing to approve a budget that defunds the immigration plan, and now Republicans are stuck. Shutting down DHS would be a PR disaster, and they haven't really managed to get the public riled up about Obama's immigration plan. Why not? Dave Weigel reports that the problem is simple. Their hearts aren't really in it:

"Republicans have not done a particularly effective job of communicating what they want here," said Ira Mehlman, FAIR's national media director. "They let the president get out there first and explain his position with public events. I don’t understand why they haven’t turned the tables on the president and capitalized. It is baffling."

And it's less than conservatives did in a comparable standoff, the summer 2013 fight over whether or not to fund the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Initially, Republican leaders in the House had wanted to split the defunding from the must-pass appropriations bill. They were denied the votes for that from the GOP conference. At the same time, the conservative Heritage Action was hosting town halls around the country, putting pressure on Republicans to kill the ACA. Some members of the Senate, most famously Texas Senator Ted Cruz, joined them.

There have been no comparable Heritage Action rallies in the weekends or recesses of 2015. "This fight was set up by leadership when they opted for the cromnibus strategy," explained Heritage Action president Michael Needham in an email, "and it is a fight nearly every Republican promised their constituents both on the campaign trail and then again in December. In other words, it has been set up for months on the ground they chose."

Heritage Action will key-vote the DHS bill, knuckle-rapping the Republicans who don't go all the way to de-fund the executive orders. But it has not organized opposition to a "clean bill." Neither, really, has [Ted] Cruz. He spent very little of last week's recess talking about the coming DHS fight.

So what happens next? Perhaps Republicans allow DHS to be shut down for a symbolic few days and then allow a vote on a clean funding bill that will pass the House with a few Republican votes and a lot of Democratic votes. Because basically most of them don't really care.

As well they shouldn't. The truth is that they shot themselves in the foot from the very start by going ballistic over Obama's actions. The thing is, Obama didn't really do all that much. Before he acted, we had 11 million undocumented immigrants who weren't going to be deported. Afterward, we had 11 million undocumented immigrants who weren't going to be deported—but would be given temporary documentation that officially protected them from the deportation that wasn't going to happen anyway. Conservatives could have just grumbled and let it go, but instead they gave Obama a huge win by making it seem as if his actions were a major victory in the immigration wars. It's been a boon for both Obama and the Democratic Party, and huge headache for the Republican Party.

It's too late now to back away from the relentless claims that Obama has acted like a lawless, Constitution-shredding tyrant over immigration, but Republicans have to figure out something. The public might or might not approve of how Obama implemented his reforms, but they're fine with the reforms themselves. Aside from a few tea party dead enders, there's just no widespread outrage to tap into.

So instead of spending their first few months in control of Congress doing something, Republicans are fighting dumb battles that Obama has suckered them into. The faster they get out from under that rock, the better off they'll be.

Supreme Court Opens a Crack in Fight Against Occupational Licensing Restrictions

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 11:13 AM EST

This is not a topic that I've spent a lot of time on, but for several years there's been an interesting coalition of liberals and libertarian-minded conservatives who are opposed to the relentless increase of licensing regulations in occupations like hair dressing and interior decoration. Their complaint is that these requirements are mostly just attempts by the industries themselves to increase barriers to entry and thus increase the prices they can charge.

For example, why should you have to pay a dentist for a tooth-whitening procedure? That doesn't require years of schooling and it could be done perfectly well by a technician with less training and a lower price tag. Yesterday the Supreme Court kinda sorta agreed:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday effectively rejected North Carolina’s tight control over the lucrative teeth-whitening business.

In a divided decision that polishes up the court’s free market credentials, six justices agreed the Federal Trade Commission can charge the dentist-dominated North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners with “anticompetitive and unfair” actions....The court’s 6-3 decision did not, by itself, explicitly strike down the North Carolina teeth-whitening regulations that restrict the work to dentists. The decision does, though, reject the North Carolina board’s argument that it enjoyed immunity from the Federal Trade Commission filing charges.

....North Carolina dentists began teeth-whitening services in the 1990s. By 2003, non-dentist providers began offering the same service in spas and salons. They charged less, prompting dentists to complain to the state board, which subsequently issued cease-and-desist orders to the non-dentists.

This is a small step, but potentially an important crack in the door. All it says is that the FTC can file antitrust charges if it wants to, which obviously depends a lot on who happens to be appointing FTC commissioners at any given moment. It's also limited to industry licensing boards that aren't "actively supervised" by the state. In the North Carolina case, "the board is funded by industry fees rather than taxpayer dollars, and six of the eight members are dentists selected by industry representatives." That was enough for the Supreme Court to decide that state supervision was basically a sham.

So it's a narrow ruling. But it has some potential to lead to a loosening of occupational licensing restrictions in the future. It's worth keeping an eye on.

UPDATE: I just read my morning paper over breakfast (yes, I'm a dinosaur), and David Savage has a piece about this in the LA Times that explains the issues pretty well. It's better than the McClatchy piece above. Click here to read it.

Chart of the Day: Inflation Continues to Fall Short of Weimar Germany Levels

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 10:51 AM EST

The BLS released its January inflation report today, and guess what? Hyperinflation continues to be kept at bay. In fact, the CPI didn't just stay at a low level in January, it was actually negative. Compared to a month ago, prices dropped 0.7 percent. Compared to a year ago, prices dropped 0.1 percent (blue line in chart below):

This will cause Paul Krugman to dance another victory jig, but the number the Fed really cares about is core inflation, which excludes food and energy (red line in the chart). This is because food and energy tend to be volatile, which makes them unreliable guides to the long-term trajectory of inflation. The core rate is a better predictor of that. But the news is good here too: Core inflation remained low and stable, increasing only 1.6 percent compared to a year ago.

According to the BLS, gasoline was "overwhelmingly" the cause of the sharp decline in the overall CPI, and it's unlikely that this will continue. Gasoline prices have probably fallen about as much as they can, and over the next year will remain stable or perhaps rise a bit. But there's no telling for sure because energy prices are volatile. That's the whole point of focusing on core inflation.

In any case, as you can see, core inflation has remained below the Fed's 2 percent target for quite a while. Two years, in fact. This is why Krugman and many others are urging the Fed to hold off on raising interest rates. The labor market still has some slack, and there's simply no sign of inflation on the horizon—and when there is, there will be plenty of time to act. After all, if the Fed can tolerate two years of inflation below their target, they can tolerate a year or two of inflation above their target. What's more, there's no risk here. The Fed knows perfectly well how to get inflation down if and when it gets above target for a sustained period.

In other news, wages are up a bit:

Real average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees rose 1.3 percent from December to January, seasonally adjusted. This result stems from a 0.3 percent increase in average hourly earnings combined with a 0.9 percent decrease in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers.

That's nice, but note that it's mainly an artifact of negative inflation. If you think of core inflation as the better measure of long-term price levels, wages are up only slightly. That's better than nothing, of course, but still nowhere near a sign of dangerous tightness in the labor market.

Bottom line: Inflation continues to be well controlled. There's no need to give up on loose monetary policy yet. Let's wait until the labor market looks like it's really picking up again.

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Obama Just Vetoed the GOP's Keystone Bill, and This Democratic Presidential Hopeful Is Pissed

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 5:12 PM EST

Jim Webb is sounding increasingly serious about running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. Last week, National Journal's Bob Moser wrote a cover story wondering whether the former Virginia senator could "spark an anti-Hillary uprising," in which Webb explained that his absence from the campaign trail this winter was, in part, the result of major knee surgery to fix problems leftover from his days in the Vietnam War.

Webb struck his first blow against his fellow Democrats on Wednesday. But rather than targeting Clinton, his likely presidential opposition, he struck out against the party's incumbent, President Barack Obama. In a series of tweets, Webb lashed out at the president for vetoing a bill that would have approved construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Webb's tweetstorm doesn't tell the whole story. A letter from the EPA released earlier this month argued that, thanks to recent drops in oil prices, Keystone XL could prove disastrous for carbon emissions.

As I detailed in December, Jim Webb had an atrocious record on climate change and environmental issues while he served in the Senate. Standing up for Virginia's roots as a coal state, Webb tried to thwart Obama's efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses through EPA regulation, and he helped block Democratic attempts to pass a cap-and-trade law.

Clinton, for her part, has regularly sidestepped addressing whether she wants to see the pipeline constructed, though she has generally been supportive of other environmental efforts made by the Obama administration.

While Webb objected to Obama's decision to veto this specific bill, it's still unclear whether the two Democrats disagree on the underlying issue. Obama has strenuously rejected attempts by congressional Republicans to force immediate approval of the pipeline, but his administration has not yet said definitely if it intends to let the project go forward eventually.

This Koala Is So Cute You'll Want It To Get Away With Stealing This Kid's Car

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 4:52 PM EST

Never leave your Land Rover unattended in the Outback. This "cheeky" koala tried to drive off before the car's owner, a teen about to return home from school, foiled its getaway.

Happy Wednesday.

I Want to Hear the Republican Plan For Fighting ISIS

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 4:12 PM EST

The drumbeat for President Obama to "do something" to fight ISIS is growing louder every day among prospective Republican presidential candidates. It's all a bit weird, since Obama rather plainly is doing something, as interviewers repeatedly point out whenever the subject comes up. But no matter. It's a good sound bite, and in any case, whatever Obama is doing, Republicans insist they want to do more. Today, Paul Waldman points out that all these presidential wannabes are just reflecting what the Republican base wants to hear:

Four months ago, 57 percent of Republicans thought we should use ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria; that number has now gone up to 67 percent. Among the conservative Republicans who will dominate the primary contests, it’s even higher, at 71 percent. When Pew asked respondents to choose between “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world” and “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,” last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent.

I don't suppose that most voters have really thought this through in much detail, but I wonder just how far they really want to go. The ISIS stronghold of Mosul, for example, is about five times the size of Fallujah, and probably has about 3-4 times as many ISIS defenders as Fallujah had Sunni insurgents back in 2004. And Fallujah was a huge battle. It took more than a year to retake the city; required something like 15,000 coalition troops in all; and resulted in more than a hundred coalition deaths.

At a first guess, a full-scale assault on Mosul would likely require at least 2-3 times as many troops and result in several hundred American deaths. And Mosul is only a fraction of the territory ISIS controls. It's a big fraction, but still a fraction.

So this is what I want to hear from Republican critics of Obama's ISIS strategy. I agree with them that training Iraqi troops and relying on them to fight ISIS isn't all that promising. But the alternative is likely to be something like 30-50,000 troops committed to a battle that will result in hundreds of American casualties. Are Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz willing to own up to that? If they are, then good for them and we'll let the American public decide who's got the better strategy. But if they're not, then it's all just a con job for the rubes. The GOP candidates are screaming for "more," but not willing to acknowledge what "more" really means.

Let's hear it, folks. When you say "more," what do you really have in mind? Candidates for president shouldn't be allowed to get away with nothing more than vague grumbles and hazy bellicosity any longer. Let's hear the plan.

Health Update

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 2:28 PM EST

This is not of interest to most of you, but I do get emails and queries fairly frequently, so I figure I ought to share once in a while. The big picture summary is that nothing serious is wrong; a biopsy is scheduled for Friday; and I've been officially enrolled in the second stage of chemo treatment (the stem cell transplant). For those who want to know more, additional detail and miscellaneous griping is below the fold.