2009 - %3, January

24

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:32 PM EST

24....So I watched the 24 premiere last night, and it's obvious that the show is going to deal head on with the subject of torture this season. Episode 1 opens with Jack testifying before a Senate committee about his past transgressions, which he wearily but defiantly confesses to, and then rolls through two hours of FBI agents wondering "how far he'll go" — because, you see, Jack's exploits with the dark arts are apparently the thing of legend in the hallways of the Bureau.

Is there any way for this end other than badly? After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don't live in the world of 24, guys. And we don't. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won't do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it's your call blah blah? Pretty low, I'd guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

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Chris Dodd Is Putting His Foot Down on TARP. Kinda

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:19 PM EST

Chris Dodd must have woken up this morning and finally realized he is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. He announced today that he is blocking the release of any further TARP funds ($350 billion remains in federal coffers) until the limits on executive pay and the help for struggling homeowners that were promised around the time of TARP's passage are made into a reality. (A rough paraphrase of Hank Paulson from October 2008: "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say. No golden parachutes. Money for families in foreclosure. Fine. Just please give us the damn money.")

Dodd's a little late to this party. After all, half the TARP funds have been distributed and it's not clear that any oversight was used, any limitation on executive pay was enacted, or any help has trickled down to the folks who are actually losing their homes. And, to be honest, he's a little weak in the spine. Barney Frank, Dodd's equivalent in the House, is standing behind legislation that would improve the bailout program while Dodd is reportedly ready to let the process move forward unchanged following a stern letter to the Obama people. Presumably Dodd would hold a press conference and say that the transition office has given him all the assurances he needs. Which is ridiculous, of course, because Paulson snowed him in exactly the same way.

By the way, is TARP working for you? It's working for us.

The Harry Potter Effect

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 11:54 AM EST

THE HARRY POTTER EFFECT....Via Dan Drezner, the NEA has released its latest survey of reading habits, and the news is good. Fiction reading among young adults is way up, and overall reading is up too. More than 50% of adults read a piece of literature last year. Huzzah!

The highest rate of reading is among 55-64 year-olds. Poetry reading continued to decline: only 8% of adults read a poem last year, compared to 12% in 2002. And in other unsurprising news, internet reading is concentrated among the young. About half of 18-44 year-olds read an article or essay online last year, with the number plummeting quickly above that. Less than 10% of 70-year-olds read anything online in 2008.

The Army Wants You to Be "Less" Than You Can Be

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 10:21 AM EST

By weight, that is. The twin catastrophes of America's obesity epidemic and our-never ending wars have the Army caught between a rock and a fat place: America.

From the AP:

The Army has been dismissing so many overweight applicants that its top recruiter, trying to keep troop numbers up in wartime, is considering starting a fat farm to transform chubby trainees into svelte soldiers.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Recruiting Command, said he wants to see a formal diet and fitness regimen running alongside a new school at Fort Jackson that helps aspiring troops earn their GEDs.

An Army fat farm? Geez. Eighteen and already too fat to fight.

Wrecking ReadyMade in One Easy Step?

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 3:55 AM EST

readymade.jpgMore sad news from the publishing bloodbath: ReadyMade is packing its repurposed-pocket lint-bags and heading to Iowa. The Berkeley-based hipster D.I.Y. magazine is one of the most creative reads to come out of the independent magazine scene; it has a can-do cool that inspires even those readers who don't think of themselves as all that crafty. In 2006, it was acquired by the Meredith Corporation, the Des Moines-based publisher of vanilla standards like Ladies' Home Journal and Family Circle. Now, as part of a round of corporate apron string-tightening, Meredith has decided to "relocate" the magazine's art and edit departments to Des Moines. The move, says a company spokesman, will allow RM to "take advantage of the assets we have in Des Moines, like the photo studio and the test kitchen." Because, you know, it's hard to find those in the Bay Area.

The Midwest move may look great on a balance sheet, but it's hard to imagine it doing any favors for RM and its readers. Not that there might not be lots of craftiness in the Hawkeye State (corn-husk coffee tables, perhaps?) but I'd guess that this means the magazine's going to lose most of its core creative team along with its sense of place. It's painful to see yet another instance of a media corporation taking a successful publication and shortsightedly messing with the very secret of its success. (The magazine has clearly been doing something right: Founder and editor Shoshana Berger recently said that it has tripled its readership.) Here's hoping that the old ReadyMade survives its makeover.

Stimulus Details

| Sat Jan. 10, 2009 3:43 PM EST

STIMULUS DETAILS....In case you're curious, Barack Obama's economic boffins now estimate that his stimulus plan will create 3.6 million additional jobs over the next two years. And if you're further curious about how likely this is to affect you, the estimated breakdown by industry is on the right:

To get more detailed information on the breakdown of the jobs created, we use a simulation from a prominent private forecaster on a plan that is similar — though not identical — to the type of plan the President-Elect is considering....The estimates suggest that 30% of the jobs created will be in construction and manufacturing, even though these industries employ only 15% of all workers. Both sectors have been particularly hard hit recently. The other two significant sectors that are disproportionately represented in job creation are retail trade and leisure and hospitality.

Later in the report the authors helpfully estimate that 42% of the new jobs will go to women. Bruce Bartlett emails a very brief critique of the report: "Some of these numbers look rather dubious to me, especially those for 'indirect' job creation." Perhaps so, though the broad methodology seems within the ballpark of reasonableness: they assume a net multiplier (spending + tax cuts) of around 1.3 producing nominal GDP growth in 2010 of $500 billion, combined with a "conservative rule of thumb that a 1 percent increase in GDP corresponds to an increase in employment of approximately 1 million jobs." Paul Krugman thinks these numbers sound roughly right and show that the stimulus package is too small. I'll pass along other economic comment as I see it.

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Job Losses

| Sat Jan. 10, 2009 1:29 PM EST

JOB LOSSES....A headline at CNN blares:

Worst year for jobs since '45

The LA Times follows suit. But come on, folks. This is completely bogus. I'm all for dramatizing just how grim our economic situation is, but you can't use raw numbers like this in an era of rising population. The civilian labor force today is 40% larger than it was in 1982 and more than twice as large as it was in 1945. Job losses last year amounted to about 1.7% of the labor force, but in 1945 the equivalent number was nearly 5% and in 1982 it was nearly 2%.

Job losses last year were brutal, and if you count broader measures than the headline unemployment rate they were even grimmer. But there's no need to use moron math to make it seem even worse than it is. "Worst since 1982" would have been fine.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 10:37 PM EST

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL....Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs posted a video Q&A today on the change.gov site and took the following question:

Thaddeus: Is the new administration going to get rid of the "don't ask don't tell" policy?

Gibbs: Thaddeus, you don't hear a politician give a one-word answer much, but it's yes.

That's very good news, though I sure wish Gibbs had given a multi-word answer instead. Mainly, what I want to know is: "What do you plan to replace it with?" We'll just have to wait and see, I guess.

Spider-Man Vs. Obama: This is Gonna Be Lame

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 8:45 PM EST

obama_spidey300.jpgMarvel Comics has announced that it's cashing in on—excuse me, commemorating—a "Brand New Day for the United States" by sticking Barack Obama into its next issue of Spider-Man. The story, set on Inauguration Day, "finds one of Spider-Man's oldest foes attempting to thwart the swearing in ceremony of the 44th President of the United States." Wait, Spider-Man has done battle with these kooks? Actually, the baddie is the Chameleon, which I think is one of Dick Cheney's aliases.

Nothing good can come from superheroes meddling in politics. Last year, DC Comics released a series of election-themed comics. Our in-house comic collector-slash-webmaster lent me his copies and, wow, were they bad. So my spidey senses are tingling with something less than anticipation about the Webslinger going to Washington. From the online previews, it looks like the episode's highlight is Spidey doing a terrorist fist-jab with some black guy in a suit. Seriously, if Marvel's going to suck up to the president, it could have at least found an artist who can draw a reasonable likeness of him. Or wait—maybe that's really Cheney before he rips off his cheap Obama mask and reveals himself?

Asking for TARP Funds Takes Only 27 Minutes

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 6:34 PM EST

PaperResized.jpg

Journalists have written so much about the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), better known as the federal bailout, that it's hard to find a new angle. Seems like everyone's clamoring for a piece of the collective capital. Maybe that's because it takes less than half an hour to ask for it.

It turns out that the application for TARP funds is surprisingly simple. Interested parties can find the complete guidelines for the TARP Capital Purchase Program here. The application is just two pages long. As a test, we decided to fill it out. Including the time it took us to explain this project to our chief financial officer, the TARP application took a mere 27 minutes to complete.

To put it in perspective, here are five things that take longer than filling out the TARP application.

  1. Applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): 4 hours.
  2. Watching Wall Street: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
  3. Making a tuna noodle casserole: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
  4. Applying for New York State unemployment insurance benefits: 30 minutes.
  5. Applying for food stamps in New Jersey: 30 minutes.

One of the only things that takes less time is filling out a credit card application: 2 minutes.

—Alexis Fitts and Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user JRP Photo