2011 - %3, July

Why the Debt Ceiling Deal Sucks

| Sun Jul. 31, 2011 10:31 PM EDT
Clockwise from top left: House Speaker John Boehner, President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Marian and I have now been married for 20 years (yay us!), so we went up to LA yesterday to see a show and then stayed over today to have lunch with Mark Kleiman and then watch world No. 84 Ernests Gulbis beat Mardy Fish in the finals of the Farmers Classic at UCLA. Which reminds me—or rather, Mark reminded me: He has a new book out called Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know. It's basically a FAQ about drug policy, and it'll only set you back a little over 10 bucks on Amazon. If you're interested in a good primer on the subject, you probably can't do much better.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying that I've been blissfully unaware of the latest idiocy regarding the debt ceiling fight over the past couple of days. But now I'm back, and CNN tells me that we've all agreed on a deal. Hooray. Roughly speaking, it's built around $1 trillion in cuts now and $1.5 trillion in cuts later. The "later" cuts will be negotiated by a super duper congressional committee, and there's a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads to ensure they don't deadlock and end up punting on a deal. It's not yet 100 percent clear what that sword is, but apparently if they don't come to an agreement, or if they do but Congress fails to pass their deal, automatic cuts will take place in the discretionary budget, split 50-50 between domestic cuts and defense cuts. Supposedly, the fact that the automatic cuts affect both domestic and defense spending will be so horrifying to conservatives and liberals alike that they'll support the Super-Duper Congressional Committee's deal. Color me skeptical. There are three possible alternatives here:

  • Compared to the autocuts, the SDCC deal is weighted more heavily toward domestic cuts. In that case, Democrats won't support it. They'll just let the automatic cuts happen instead.
  • The SDCC deal is weighted more heavily toward defense cuts. I wouldn't advise placing any bets on this outcome.
  • The SDCC deal is part cuts and part tax hikes. In that case, Republicans won't support it. They won't trade tax hikes for a bigger Pentagon budget.

Now, sure, maybe they'll cobble something together that looks a little different. But once the dust is cleared away, what other alternatives are there? Compared to the automatic cuts, the SDCC deal will either cut more from domestic spending or else close the deficit partly with cuts and partly with tax increases. That makes it dead on arrival.

It's a shit sandwich no matter how you look at it. And it's a shit sandwich in at least two very specific ways: (1) It means we'll continue to live in a fantasyland that says we don't need any tax increases even though our population is aging and we're plainly going to need higher revenues to support this demographic reality; and (2) we'll continue to live in a fantasyland that says our problems are primarily caused by discretionary spending. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of reality, which means we're going to screw the poor and do nothing serious about the long-term deficit. Nice work, adults.

But hey—this is all very dismal stuff. So here's your reward for reading all the way to the bottom: a fun question to discuss. There are a few liberal pundits out there who believe that a cuts-only deal like this one isn't all that bad. Jon Chait is one of the leading proponents of this theory, and it goes like this: Maybe an all-cuts deal is bad, but by leaving taxes off the table completely it opens the door to letting all the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of next year. Basically, Obama just needs to keep insisting that he'll only sign a bill that extends the middle-class tax cuts1 but allows the tax cuts for the rich to expire. Republicans will flatly refuse to send him such a bill, and as a result all the tax cuts will expire without Obama having to break any promises.

So here's the question: Do you think this is how things will play out? Or alternatively, will Republicans cave in at the 11th hour and send Obama a bill he can sign? Or will Obama cave and end up agreeing to extend all the cuts? My guess is that Obama will stick to his guns on this and Republicans will eventually cave, which means that the middle-class cuts will get extended permanently. Prof. Kleiman, like Chait, thinks Republicans will never, ever agree to throw rich people under the bus and will never send Obama a bill that extends only the middle-class cuts. Thus, the whole Bush package will expire. You can vote in comments on how you think this will play out.2

1Actually, even this set of tax cuts mostly benefits the well-off. But everyone calls them the middle-class cuts, so that's what I'm calling them here.

2This assumes, of course, that Obama wins reelection. If a Republican wins, and Obama lets the Bush tax cuts expire in the final hours of his administration, I assume that the new president will simply pass new tax cuts via reconciliation sometime after inauguration day.

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The Economy in 50 Words or Less

| Sat Jul. 30, 2011 10:42 AM EDT

Every quarter, the Kauffman Foundation surveys a set of economics bloggers about the state of the economy. The full report for the third quarter is here. The summary is below. It seems about right to me.

My Topless Video Chat With Amanda Palmer

| Sat Jul. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Amanda Palmer's arrest in Amsterdam.

Amanda Palmer is not an artist so much as an event. Probably best known as the former front woman for punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, she's also a street performer, director, composer, blogger, and the unhinged virtuoso of fucking bring-it. After a heated battle with Roadrunner, her former label, Palmer has turned into a crusader for DIY music distribution. She now relies on her wits, her Twits (she's up to 517,000 followers on Twitter), and her loyal, creative fanbase to keep her rocking. Not to mention fan donations on her website, or music-making pledge campaigns on sites like Kickstarter.

Not too long ago, Huffington Post dubbed Palmer the "Social Media Queen of Rock-N-Roll"—her awesomeness in that realm is perhaps best encapuslated by her performance at The Shorty Awards, where she compiled and sang the year's most amusing tweets from the likes of Kanye West, Paris Hilton, and Beaker from the Muppets.

When she's not on the interwebs, Palmer tours relentlessly (New England and Europe this summer), and she recently collaborated on a project called 8in8 with Ben Folds, OK Go's Damian Kulash (we interview him here), and Palmer's husband, the author Neil Gaiman. In short, they tried to create and record eight songs in eight hours—and ended up with six songs in twelve hours, but still. Prior to that, Palmer released Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, an Australia tribute featuring a cheeky homage to pubic hair, "Map of Tasmania," which you can watch below.

I reached out to Ms. Palmer on Twitter (of course), and she agreed to talk after I promised to take her on a dive bar date to find a Russian cyclops. For the record, I didn't actually ask her to do the interview in her bra, but, you know, you're welcome. Click on the questions in blue to watch Palmer's answers.

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

PS: You can find more Amanda Palmer on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. And you really should watch "Map of Tasmania"—here it is!

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [26]

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 7:17 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Story of the Week: The Amazing, Regenerating Dolphin

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

Next week is "Shark Week" on Discovery Channel. While I do enjoy watching sharks on TV, I find their sometime-prey, dolphins, more interesting. This week, there was a thought-provoking letter in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that explored how dolphins heal from shark bites that would be fatal to many other species, including humans. Author Michael Zasloff, a professor of immunology at Georgetown University, wondered how dolphins survive huge shark bites without bleeding to death or falling victim to infection from the many bacteria in sharks' mouths. Not only do dolphins recover from "basketball-sized" bites, they regenerate the missing flesh and heal over with no scarring or sign of injury. "That's impossible," Zasloff told ABC, "truly impossible."

Zasloff theorizes that dolphins can produce stem cells that regenerate the bitten-off tissue, or any other kind of tissue that's needed. "The repair of a gaping wound to an appearance that is near normal requires the ability of the injured animal to knit newly formed tissues with the existing fabric of adipocytes, collagen and elastic fibers," Zasloff explained. "The dolphin's healing is similar to how mammalian fetuses are able to heal in the womb."

But what about infection? Even if the dolphin didn't fall prey to the shark's bacteria, swimming around in the ocean with an open wound invites infection. Zasloff thinks that dolphins may have their own little supply of antibiotics, siphoned off from other ocean creatures like plankton or algae when the dolphin eats them, and then stored in fat for later use.

Another mystery Zasloff has been pondering for the past nine years is why dolphins with these large wounds don't appear to be in pain. Zasloff notes that not showing weakness or pain is an evolutionary response (so that predators can't tell which animals are weak), but he thinks dolphins may make their own version of morphine. "I propose that the wound itself is releasing a pain-relieving substance, and it must be unbelievably powerful."

The dolphin's amazing ability to recover from wounds that would be catastrophic to humans could be a boon to researchers... if, that is, they can scientifically verify how exactly dolphins are doing it in the first place. "My hope is this work will stimulate research that will benefit humans," says Zasloff. "I feel reasonably certain that within this animal's healing wounds we will find novel antimicrobial agents as well as potent analgesic compounds." Zasloff's only lament is that this research isn't happening fast enough, and that his own work is hampered by his limited "access to dolphins."

Pain relief, antibiotics... what else can dolphins give us lowly landlubbers? Oh, that's right, the ability to sense electricity from living beings and restrict blood-flow to injured areas. Here's hoping some enterprising cable channel will launch a week devoted to these intelligent, playful, and biologically blessed animals to compete with "Shark Week." "Dolphin Days," anyone?

 

"Why Are Republicans So..."

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 4:59 PM EDT

The fierce partisanship seen in the debt ceiling battle got me thinking about how the nation sees the Republican and Democratic parties. A new Gallup poll shows the public isn't happy with the standoff: House Speaker John Boehner gets a 31% approval rating for his handling of the crisis, while 41% approve of how Obama is managing the situation.

According to a new Pew survey, most Americans just want the two parties to get it done and over with: 68% of those polled said lawmakers should "be willing to compromise," even if the final deal is one the lawmaker "disagrees" with. These views varied by party: Democrats were overwhelmingly in favor of compromise (81%) while only half of Republicans felt the same way. Of Republicans, Tea Party Republicans were the least likely to think they should sacrifice their values for the common good: 53% said they should "stand by their principles" instead.

The Pew survey had some other interesting findings about how Americans are seeing the parties during this time of struggle. Republicans are seen as "extreme" while Democrats are seen as being more ethical and concerned with citizens' needs. Looking Google's autocomplete options, though, it seems many may think of the parties similarly: "stupid" is the #1 autocomplete option for "Why are Republicans/Democrats so...". After that, Republicans get "hateful," "evil," "selfish," and "mean" while Democrats get "weak," "dumb," "stupid" again, and "angry." Hmmm, both sound so appealing. Guess we'll see next year which party voters truly prefer.

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Friday Leftovers: Obama's Car Deal, Beware of Big Bag, and Bill Nye on Fox News

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

Given the never-ending debt talks, it went nearly unnoticed that the Obama administration announced a fairly significant new deal on fuel economy standards for automobiles on Friday. By 2025, the makers of cars and light trucks will be required to have a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon of gasoline. That averages to a 5 percent gain in efficiency for each model year, starting in 2016.

The new standard represents a deal forged between the Obama administration, car makers, and the state of California, which has traditionally set higher standards for cars than the federal requirement. The EPA estimated on Friday that this would save US drivers $1.7 trillion by 2025, or an average of $8,000 per for each new vehicle. It would also save 2.2 million barrels of oil per day by 2025, the administration said.

Enviros had been pushing for a 60 mile-per-gallon standard, but seemed to be pleased with the announcement on Friday. The Center for Progressive Reform, however, criticized the administration for working out the deal with automakers behind closed doors, rather than through the traditional regulatory process of determining the "maximum feasible" level that automakers should be able to attain.

In related news, Green Tech Media took a look at ten technologies that will help meet that standard.

Here's other news worth noting this week:

The US Coast Guard captain currently in charge of the response to last year's BP oil spill criticized Alabama officials for their handling of the clean up, reports the Press-Register.

An Associated Press investigation found that "about 1 of every 5 employees" working for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation in the Gulf had to recuse themselves from some of their duties because of conflict of interest. The new ethics policy was adopted last year in the wake of the Gulf spill.

Scientists say that climate change is forcing toxic chemicals trapped in the earth back into the atmosphere, Solve Climate reports.

Rolling Stone has a great piece on the plastic bag wars, highlighting how Big Bag is hell-bent on keeping us hooked.

And last but not least, Bill Nye—you know, the Science Guy—attempts to explain science to a Fox News anchor:

Far Right Hate Groups "Like" Facebook

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 2:51 PM EDT
The English Defence League stage a march protest in Newcastle in 2010.

If you're the leader of a loud, disorganized European hate group, you've probably figured out by now that the best way to recruit followers is the same way Ashton Kutcher does it: use Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace.

A lot.

The AP reports that European hate groups—including the English Defence League, an organization that Norway terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik claims to have communicated with—are increasingly relying on social networking sites like Facebook to recruit members.

In just two years, EDL membership has shot up from a few dozen to more than 10,000, a dramatic increase that EDL leader Stephen Lennon attributes to popular websites, as well as underground online fora. The AP has the interview:

I knew that social networking sites were the way to go…[b]ut to say that we inspired this lunatic to do what he did is wrong. We've never once told our supporters [it's] alright to go out and be violent.

Indian Nikki Haley Says She Is White

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 2:30 PM EDT
Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina, talks with supporters at Daybreak Adult Care Services in Aiken, SC on Thursday, April 23, 2011.

For the children of immigrants, the road to acceptance in America can be a bumpy one. There will be pain. There will be embarrassment. There will be relentless, cruel accusations from your brethren that you are assimilating at the expense of your true cultural heritage. And the stories of the children of immigrants who rise to positions of influence and power are especially inspiring given the challenges before them.

Not so inspiring? Lying about where you're from, like South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), the American-born child of Indian parents, might have done. The Associated Press reports that in 2001, Haley listed her race as "white" on her voter registration form.

State Democrats accuse her of being a fake-race opportunist in a state that is, according to the US Census poll, about 66% white (and just a tick over 1% Asian). From the South Carolina Post and Courier:

The state Democratic Party, which first obtained [Haley's voter registraton information], is calling Haley out on the matter and challenging whether her inconsistency on the card might have made her ineligible to voter under the state's new Voter ID law.

Dick Harpootlian, the party chairman, said whether Haley listed her race as white or not doesn’t really matter to him, but the issue is that the governor has shown a pattern of such actions.

"Haley has been appearing on television interviews where she calls herself a minority—when it suits her," Harpootlian said. "When she registers to vote she says she is white. She has developed a pattern of saying whatever is beneficial to her at the moment."

For Haley, voter fraud is a big deal. She recently signed a new law requiring that voters present photo identification at the polls that, she says, will "improve South Carolina in terms of integrity, accountability and transparency." Voter ID laws, of course, don't actually decrease voter fraud (which is virtually nonexistent). Instead, they mostly keep Democratic voters away from the polls.

Haley hasn't yet responded to the South Carolina Democrats' accusations. But even though she didn't exactly commit voter fraud, her self-race-mis-classification seems to undermine her credibilty as someone who wants to prevent people from lying on their way to the voting booth.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 July 2011

| Fri Jul. 29, 2011 2:00 PM EDT

We got Inkblot a new area rug to tear to shreds this week, this time in bright olive green. Sets him off well, don't you think.1 (Naturally we do all our interior decorating with cat complementing in mind.) On the right we have — what? Let's call it experimental catblogging. Domino has a sound she makes that means, "Get down on the floor and play with me." She made it this morning, so I got down on the floor and played with her. This time, however, I had my camera, so I stretched out my arms and took some pictures of her playing with my head. This is one of her favorite activities. Pretty lucky for me, no?

1And very presidential too. He's thinking of using this color for the Oval Office carpet after he wins election next year.