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Video Visitation Giant Promises to Stop Eliminating In-Person Visits

| Mon May 11, 2015 11:30 AM EDT

Video visitation is the hot new trend in the corrections industry. Companies like Securus and Global Tel*Link, which have made big bucks charging high prices for inmate phone services, are increasingly pitching county jails new systems that will allow inmates to video-chat with friends and family. Using new terminals installed onsite, inmates can communicate with approved users who log in remotely on a special app similar to Skype. For inmates whose loved ones don't live anywhere near their corrections facility, that can be good news.

But as I reported for the magazine in February, those video-conferencing systems sometimes come with a catch—jails that use the systems are often contractually obligated to eliminate free face-to-face visits, leaving family members no choice but to pay a dollar-a-minute for an often unreliable service.

In a press release last week Securus has announced it will no longer require jails to ditch in-person visitation:

"Securus examined our contract language for video visitation and found that in 'a handful' of cases we were writing in language that could be perceived as restricting onsite and/or person-to-person contact at the facilities that we serve," said Richard A. ("Rick") Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Securus Technologies, Inc.  "So we are eliminating that language and 100% deferring to the rules that each facility has for video use by inmates."

Translation: Nothing to see here, move along! But while inmates might be getting their face-to-face visitation back, Securus' concession on in-person visits comes even as it's fighting the Federal Communication Commission's efforts to regulate the cost of intrastate prison phone calls (it capped the price of interstate prison phone calls in 2014 at 25 cents per minute). And the corrections technology industry isn't the only group defending the status quo—the executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association told IB Times earlier this month that if the FCC interferes with phone prices (corrections facilities often get a cut of the profits), some jails may just decide to cut off access to phone calls.

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Progressives Are Getting Clobbered in Europe. Here's Why Their Chances Are Better in America.

| Mon May 11, 2015 10:00 AM EDT
Britain's Labour Party leader Ed Miliband delivering his resignation speech.

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ruy Teixeira.

The United Kingdom voted on May 7 to determine its next government. Despite predictions that there would be a hung parliament with an advantage to Labor in forming a coalition government, that did not turn out to be the case. Instead the Conservatives won an outright majority, meaning that David Cameron will continue as Prime Minister, not Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, as most believed.

Naturally, Labor Party supporters, and progressives in general, are aghast at this outcome. And certainly a Labor government would have governed differently than the Tories, who have been ruling the UK since 2010 and have famously adopted budget austerity as their main economic policy. But how differently? Oddly, the ascension of "Red Ed", as the British tabloid press likes to call him, may not have made as big a difference as one might think. This is because the Labor Party did not propose to break decisively from the pro-austerity policies of the Tory government. Indeed, the Labor Party election manifesto promised to "cut the deficit every year" regardless of the state of the economy.

Could the torchbearer for social democratic progress be the Democrats in 2016?

This "Budget Responsibility Lock", as the manifesto jauntily called it, may seem bonkers given everything we have learned about the negative economic effects of austerity policies since 2010, including in the UK, and the rapidly declining intellectual credibility of austerity as an economic doctrine. Well, that's because it is bonkers, as Paul Krugman explains in a lengthy article for The Guardian with the somewhat despairing title: "The austerity delusion: The case for cuts was a lie—Why does Britain still believe it?"

The bulk of Krugman's article is a detailed and very convincing analysis of how nutty austerity was as a policy and how poorly it has worked. However, I'm not sure he really clears up the question of why British economic discourse is still dominated by this mythology. But this is a tough one. And it's not as if the British Labor Party is alone in its attempts to reconcile social democracy with austerity; most continental social democratic parties are having similar difficulties breaking out of the austerity framework.

In fact, the center left party that's most ostentatiously stepped out of this framework is that wild-eyed band of Bolsheviks, the American Democratic Party, which has moved steadily away from deficit mania since 2011. This raises an interesting question. Given the macroeconomic straightjacket European social democrats seem determined to keep themselves in, is the Democratic Party really the torchbearer now for social democratic progress?

In this regard, it's interesting to turn to a recent book by political scientist Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic America, that makes the case (summarized here and here) that, over the long term, the US is, in fact, on a social democratic course.

By social democracy, Kenworthy means an economic system featuring "a commitment to the extensive use of government policy to promote economic security, expand opportunity, and ensure rising living standards for all… [I]t aims to do so while also safeguarding economic freedom, economic flexibility, and market dynamism, all of which have long been hallmarks of the U.S. economy." He calls this "modern" social democracy, contrasting with "traditional" social democracy in that it goes beyond merely helping people survive without employment to also providing "services aimed at boosting employment and enhancing productivity: publicly funded child care and preschool, job-training and job-placement programs, significant infrastructure projects, and government support for private-sector research and development."

Kenworthy anticipates that, as we move toward this kind of social democracy, we will do most of the following:

1) Increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation.

2) Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit while making it available to middle income families and indexing it to GDP per capita.

3) Increase benefit levels and loosen eligibility levels for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, general assistance, food stamps, housing assistance, and energy assistance.

4) Mandate paid parental leave.

5) Expand access to unemployment insurance.

6) Increase the Child Care Tax Credit.

7) Universalize access to pre-K.

8) Institute a supplemental defined contribution plan with automatic enrollment.

9) Increase federal spending on public child care, roads and bridges, and health care; and mandate more holidays and vacation time for workers.

It's interesting to note that most of this list is consistent with the mainstream policy commitments of the Democratic Party and that a good chunk of it will probably find its way into the platform of the 2016 Democratic Presidential candidate. Maybe Kenworthy's prediction is not so far-fetched.

One other reason to see the US as a potential beacon for social democratic progress stems from the nature of political coalitions in an era of demographic change. In the United States, the Democratic Party has largely succeeded in capturing the current wave of modernizing demographic change (immigrants, minorities, professionals, seculars, unmarried women, the highly-educated, the Millennial generation, etc.) Emerging demographic groups generally favor the Democrats by wide margins, which combined with residual strength among traditional constituencies gives them a formidable electoral coalition. The challenge for American progressives is therefore mostly about keeping their demographically enhanced coalition together in the face of conservative attacks and getting it to turn out in midterm elections.

The situation is different in Europe, where modernizing demographic change has, so far, not done social democratic parties much good. One reason is that some of these demographic changes do not loom as large in most European countries as they do in the United States. The immigrant/minority population starts from a smaller base so the impact of growth, even where rapid, is more limited. And the younger generation, while progressive, does not have the population weight it does in America.

Beyond that, however, is a factor that has prevented social democrats from harnessing the still-considerable power of modernizing demographic change in Europe. That is the nature of European party systems. Unlike in the United States, where the center-left party, the Democrats, has no meaningful electoral competition for the progressive vote, European social democrats typically do have such competition and from three different parts of the political spectrum: greens; left socialists; and liberal centrists. And not only do they have competition, these other parties, on aggregate, typically overperform among emerging demographics, while social democrats generally underperform. Thus it would appear that social democrats, who have also hemmoraged support from traditional working class voters, will be increasingly unable to build viable progressive coalitions by themselves.

Bringing progressive constituencies together across parties is of course difficult to do and so far European social democrats seem completely at sea on how to handle this challenge. Much easier to have all those constituencies together in one party—like we do in the United States.

The road to progress isn't clear anywhere but, defying national stereotypes, it's starting to look a bit clearer in the US than in Europe.

Watch John Oliver Celebrate Mother's Day by Slamming the Hypocrisy of No Paid Maternity Leave

| Mon May 11, 2015 8:52 AM EDT

The United States is one of only two countries in the world that fails to offer mothers paid maternity leave—a shameful distinction we share with Papua New Guinea. As families gathered to celebrate Mother's Day yesterday, John Oliver took to Last Week Tonight to address the issue and show why current federal law allowing just 12 weeks of leave, all of which is unpaid and extremely limited, forces countless new mothers back to work or in jeopardy of losing their jobs.

"This is not how its supposed to work," Oliver said. "Mothers shouldn't have to stitch together time to recover from childbirth the same way that we plan a four-day weekend in Atlantic City."

Much of this problem is two-fold, Oliver explains, with companies refusing to offer paid leave packages and fearmongering lawmakers claiming any federal mandates to do so would only hurt businesses.

"You can't go on and on about how much you love moms but fail to pass legislation that makes life easier for them."

Watch the full report below:

 

Here's the Reason Cable News Is Going Down the Tubes

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

cable news ratings

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some of the remarkable writers and thinkers who have traded links and ideas with him from Blogosphere 1.0 to this day to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today we're honored to present a post from Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox.

Cable news is in trouble. The Pew Research Center reports that the median daily audience for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC is down about 11 percent since 2008.

The Washington Post's Paul Farhi sees a grim future for the industry. He argues that cable news is pretty much where newspapers were a decade ago: Their audience is aging, their medium is being disrupted by new technologies, and the next generation of viewers is developing habits and preferences that they're poorly placed to serve. (This is probably a good moment to note that I'm a contributor to MSNBC.)

The networks may still be making money—in 2014, Fox News managed $1.2 billion in profits, while CNN cleared $300 million and MSNBC made a bit more than $200 million—but Farhi suggests the "the cable news networks will face bankruptcy the same way Ernest Hemingway once described a character’s financial demise: 'Gradually and then suddenly.'"

Perhaps that's right. But while Farhi's account of cable news' woes focuses mainly on the cable part of the equation, it's also worth considering the problems all three networks are having with the news itself.

The rise of the three major cable news networks were all driven by stories they dominated. CNN was made by the 1991 Gulf War. It wasn't just the first time they passed the networks in ratings. It was the first time they showed they could beat the networks in coverage. You can still feel the surprise in this New York Times article from 1991:

The shooting in the Persian Gulf began tonight with the three broadcast networks committed to covering the war on a 24-hour basis, although their image as news leaders was damaged by the Cable News Network's early dominance of the coverage…the networks' image was certainly not helped when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he was following the attacks on Baghdad on CNN. At least one network station, an NBC station in Detroit, decided to quit its network's coverage to run CNN's. And NBC finally was compelled to interview CNN reporters on the air to get information out of Baghdad.

Fox News, for its part, saw basically exponential growth around 9/11, and then again around the 2008 campaign and Obama's election. MSNBC's rise was driven by the backlash to the Bush administration, and particularly to the Iraq War:

The network held those gains in the first half of the Obama era as liberals went from terrified to triumphant. But as liberals have gone from triumphant to a bit depressed and checked out, viewership has begun to decline.

The recent rise of cable news, particularly Fox and MSNBC, came in a period when the news—particularly political news—was unusually interesting.

Between 2000 and 2012, we saw a contested US presidential election, the largest terrorist attack ever on US soil, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, repeated wave elections, a global financial crisis, the first black president, the rise of the tea party, the fight over Obamacare, and the first states to legalize gay marriage and marijuana—and much more. It's been a weirdly interesting, consequential period in American politics. And so the cable news networks, which could devote 24 hours a day to covering these stories, benefited.

But now it's an unusually dull period in American politics. Congress is gridlocked, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The United States, thankfully, isn't reeling from a terrorist attack or a financial crisis. We haven't invaded Iran, at least not yet. And it's not just cable news that's losing viewers because of it. Turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest it's been in 70 years.

You see this, I think, in the specific fortunes of the cable networks. Farhi reports that MSNBC lost 14 percent of its audience in 2014, and Fox lost 2 percent. But CNN prime time—which swung away from politics towards covering plane crashes and airing documentaries—is up 10 percent in 2015.

Which is all to say that Farhi may be right about the long-term decline of cable news—over some extended period of time, both network and cable channels are going to be diminished by whatever it is the internet creates in their place.

But year to year, a lot of the ups and downs might just be the appeal of what's actually in the news. If President Scott Walker goes to war with Iran, MSNBC's ratings are going to go up. If President Hillary Clinton takes away everyone's guns, Fox is going to boom. But for now, relative peace and stability are bad news for cable news.

Shelby Lynne's Down-Home Country Music Is the Real Deal

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Shelby Lynne
I Can't Imagine
Rounder

Shelby Lynne shouldn't be hurried. Her earthy voice works best at a leisurely pace, indicating hard-won lessons of a world-weary heart as well as pleasures of the moment worth savoring. (Not surprisingly, one of her new songs bears the Zen-like title "Be in the Now.") The thoroughly satisfying I Can't Imagine features Lynne's usual brew of down-home country, unadorned R&B, plainspoken folk, and passionate gospel, but what it really sounds like is her own unique self. Like the great Tony Joe White (Lynne's spiritual kin), she's created a fresh and distinctive language out of these familiar sources, spinning tales of longing and fulfillment that never feel less than genuine.

Best Coast's "California Nights" Is an Enticing Combination of Angst and Beat

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Best Coast
California Nights
Harvest

Bethany Cosentino, the singer-songwriter half of Best Coast—multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno is her longtime collaborator—excels at existential distress encased in a bright candy shell. California Nights, the duo's fine third album, is a delicious brew of big pop melodies, yearning vocals that wouldn't be out of place in an old-fashioned girl group, and densely textured wall-of-sound production. While Cosentino's lyrics are often disarmingly simple and direct, along the lines of "I love you" and "I miss you," collectively they can hint at deranged obsession, as if a crazed romantic poet had picked up an electric guitar and started a band. Having once sung "Who Have I Become?" she continues her soul-searching ways here on the soaring "So Unaware," asking, "What is life/What is love/What's the meaning of it all?/Do I even care?/Or is it just that I am so unaware?" Add equally restless tunes like "When Will I Change?" and "Sleep Won't Ever Come," and you've got the most enticing combination of angst and beat to be found anywhere.

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What Do Iran Trade Sanctions Have to Do With California Pistachios?

| Mon May 11, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Amid an epochal drought with no end in sight, farmers in California's Central Valley have entered a veritable well-drilling arms race to capture water from fast-depleting aquifers, causing large swaths of land to sink and permanently reducing its ability to hold water. But none of that has reined in the pistachio industry's relentless expansion. Acreage devoted to pistachios grew more than 20 percent between 2012 and 2014; at a conference in March, nut magnate Stewart Resnick, co-owner and president of Wonderful Pistachios, urged growers to plant more, more, more, claiming that the tasty nuts deliver an even tastier $3,519 average per acre profit. (Resnick's team also beseeched growers to invest some of their windfall in lobbying to maintain industry-friendly water rules.)

With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves.

But if California's epic water crunch can't slow down the state's pistachio juggernaut, here's one thing that just might: a possible deal, now being negotiated within the United Nations, to end trade sanctions against Iran if it agrees to curb its nuclear program.

What does Iran have to do with California pistachios? Pretty much everything, it turns out. Flash back to 1979. Iran, governed for decades by the US-friendly Shah, dominated the global pistachio trade. Pistachios barely registered as a crop in California. Then came the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis; overnight, the nation went from trusted trading partner to pariah—a status it has held, more or less, ever since. With Iranian pistachios banned in the United States, California farmers sensed an opportunity and started putting in groves. By 1990, the state's pistachio acreage had more than doubled. By 2014, it stood at more than 294,000 acres—nearly ten-fold growth since the Shah's fall. (Numbers here.)

But if the Iran nuke deal goes into effect, trade barriers will tumble and Iranian pistachios will again be available in the United States—exposing California farmers to competition and possibly threatening those windfall profits being brandished by Resnick. "Iran has far more clout in the market for cocktail nibbles than it does in crude trading," Bloomberg notes. "While it ranks only as the world's seventh-largest oil producer, the Middle Eastern country vies with the U.S. to be the biggest pistachio grower."

Then there's Europe, a market worth about $300 million to US growers. Iranian pistachios aren't banned outright there, Bloomberg reports, but are severely constrained by broader sanctions on banking and shipping. A deal on nukes would change all that.  

No one knows precisely how much an open market for Iranian product would affect prices for the profitable nibbles. But Bloomberg speculates the "biggest losers may be Californian farmers who have doubled pistachio acreage over the past ten years despite drought conditions."

Religous Zealot Would Like to Talk to You For a Minute About the Drought

| Sun May 10, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As you may know, there is a drought in California. The water? It's gone! The state? It's dry! The consequences? Very bad, indeed.

Where did the water go? I have no idea. I'm not a private detective who specializes in missing water.

Why did the water leave? No clue. Maybe it's climate change or almonds or squirrels or people or agricultural blah blah blah. Maybe the water saw Thelma & Louise and got inspired. Again: If you're looking for answers, you're reading the wrong writer. But you know who else has no idea why the drought happened? This idiot.

[Conservative journalist Bill Koenig] suggested that the drought in California is a result of the state’s support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights: “We’ve got a state that over and over again will go against the word of God, that will continually take positions on marriage and abortion and on a lot of things that are just completely opposed to the scriptures and unfortunately a lot of times when it starts in California it spreads to the rest of the country and even spreads to the rest of the world. So there very likely could be a drought component to this judgment.”

The end-times crowd always does this whenever there is a natural disaster or terror attack or anything. They always finger the same suspect. Gay people. 9/11? Gays. Katrina? Gays. Drought? Gays.

Social conservatives are the guy in the movie theater who keeps whispering to his friends, "I KNOW WHO DID IT."

Pundit blames California's catastrophic drought on the gays. http://t.co/Xt101dJfKz

— HuffPost Green (@HuffPostGreen) May 8, 2015

The thing is, the lunatic premise that God is punishing California for being less inhospitable to gays than Bill Koenig would like wouldn't even lead to the conclusion that the drought is the fault of gays and LGBT allies in California. The conclusion it would lead to is: it's God's fault. 

If someone stole some fruit and the store manager caught them and punished them by murdering their entire family and everyone they'd ever met, the headline would not be, "Millions Dead, Fruit Thief Blamed," it would be, "Maniac Murders Millions." The fruit thief wouldn't even be mentioned until the fifth paragraph.

And One Chart to Rule Them All

| Sat May 9, 2015 8:34 PM EDT

It feels like it's been weeks since I last created a chart for this blog. I suppose this is because it has been weeks. Today that changes.

Over on the right is the chart that's controlled my life for the past couple of weeks. That's not to say there weren't plenty of others. My potassium level seemed to be of particular concern, for example, but that would make an especially boring chart since it just bounced around between 3.3 and 3.9 the entire time. (They added a bag of IV potassium to my usual daily hydration whenever it fell below 3.6.) Now that I'm home and my IV line is gone, I'm eating more bananas than usual, just to be on the safe side, but that's about it.

But that was nothing. What really mattered was my white blood count. You can see it on the right. For some reason, the two days of actual chemotherapy are called Day -2 and Day -1, and the day of the stem cell transplant is Day 0. On that day, as you can see, my count was around 6500, which is quite normal. Then, as the Melphalan steamrolled everything in its path, it plummeted to ~0 on days 7 and 8. Bye bye, immune system. Finally, on Day 9, as the transplanted stem cells started to morph into various blood products, my count skyrocketed. By the time I was discharged on Day 14, it was back to normal levels.

Fascinating, no? Especially when it's in chart form!

Lessee. Any other news? My fatigue is still pretty heavy, and will stay that way for 2-3 weeks. I didn't realize it would last so long, partly because my doctor waited literally until my discharge date to tell me. But it's for real. It took me two tries to create this post: one session to create the chart, after which I crashed, and a second session to write the text. Not exactly speed demon blogging. What else? I have a nasty metallic taste in my mouth all the time. It sucks. And I think my hair is finally getting ready to fall out completely. This morning my pillow was covered with tiny little pieces of hair, and it's pretty obvious where they came from. On the bright side, my appetite is improving. I'm not yet at the stage where I really want to eat, but I'm mostly willing to eat, which is good enough for now. This may be partly due to the fact that I'm wearing one of those seasickness patches behind my ear to fight nausea. It seems to be working.

Oh, and I can now take a nice, normal shower without first having to spend ten minutes trying to bundle up my catheter so it doesn't get wet. Woohoo!

Friday Cat Blogging - May 8 2015

| Fri May 8, 2015 3:44 PM EDT
VZ and CC

While Kevin is taking a break and getting better, we're rounding out the usual Friday Cat Blogging routine with some special Mother Jones-affiliated guests.

Today, I'm happy to present CC and VZ. These handsome brothers were adopted from a Berkeley shelter by Ian Gordon, our copy editor. Named Sacco and Vanzetti at birth (I did mention the shelter was in Berkeley, right?), their new family quickly developed nicknames that would be less of a mouthful. Below you'll find CC on the left, and VZ on the right.


These fellas are intrepid neighborhood explorers. Ian reports that they have indoor visitation rights at at least three nearby houses. Don't you wish they'd stop by and class up your joint sometime?

If they did, they just might come bearing gifts. Their phase of hunting, gathering, and gifting mysterious objects to their caregivers is well cataloged on Ian's Look What the Cats Dragged In Tumblr, where you'll find alternately hilarious and discomfiting documentation of undergarments, empty food packages, and decades-old newspapers.

Where do they get this stuff? How do they make their selections? What are they trying to communicate?

The only ones who know aren't talking.