2012 - %3, February

I'm Getting Jobs Report Fatigue

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 3:35 PM EST

One of the things that's been niggling away at the back of mind lately is the (seemingly) increasing sameness of the blogs I read. More and more, as I plow through them in the morning, they're all filled with posts on the exact same four or five topics. I used to call them the "outrages of the day," though of course they're not all outrages. Some of them are just the ordinary news of the day.

This popped into my mind in a slightly different context today as I made my way through my RSS feeds and found post after post after post about the January jobs report. Some feeds had two or three or even four or five separate posts on the subject. It's gotten crazy.

Back in the day, blogs posted a bit here and there about monthly economic news, and of course specialty pubs like the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal would dive a little deeper into them and provide a bit of commentary and reaction. No longer. Now, the various reports are greeted every month by an enormous hail of blog posts diving ever deeper and deeper into the details behind the headline numbers. I wonder if it's time to ease up on this.

I appreciate detail as much as the next guy — more than the next guy, actually — but you know what? It's a jobs report for one month. There's only so much it can tell you. Diving deeply into it is sort of like trying to squeeze more significant digits out of a result than went into the inputs. You're just kidding yourself if you think this level of detail on a single month's data is really telling us anything.

Apologies if this seems Andy Rooney-ish. But seriously folks. I know it's an election year, but it's still only one month of jobs data. Give it the attention it deserves, but no more.

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Komen's Position on Stem Cells Remains Unclear

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 2:13 PM EST

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has hedged its decision to stop providing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings after that move kicked off a good deal of outrage. But it's still not clear where the group stands on embryonic stem cell research, another subject that has made Komen a target of anti-abortion groups.

Anti-abortion groups have been pressuring Komen to stop providing millions in support to research institutions like Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the U.S. National Cancer Institute because those organizations also conduct research using embryonic stem cells.

As we reported yesterday, news outlets affiliated with the anti-abortion rights movement have been touting a recent press release from Komen that insists that it is not funding embryonic stem cell research and does not support any cancer research that involves "destroying a human embryo."

A reader managed to find a copy of the Nov. 30 press release, which has since disappeared from Komen's website. I've posted that document here, and it definitely seems to suggest that Komen now opposes embryonic stem cell research. That wasn't the case a few years ago, when this Komen newsletter touted the potential benefits of using embryonic stem cells:

Embryonic stem cells (derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro and then donated for research purposes) have the potential to give rise to many different types of tissue. Because of this, embryonic stem cells are currently considered to have the most potential for use in the regeneration of diseased or injured tissues. Another potential role is providing a better understanding of cancer development.

The National Cancer Institute notes that "embryonic stem cells hold far more potential than adult cells" when it comes to research, because embryonic cells "can change into more tissue types and replicate indefinitely, two properties not generally shown with adult cells."

I've asked Komen to comment on whether they have formally changed their position on this type of research, but have not received a response. Although many are heralding Komen's semi-cave on Planned Parenthood, the group's current position is on stem cell research is still a mystery, and one that needs to be resolved—particularly since research on "a cure" is central to Komen's mission.

Mitt Romney's Terrible Economic Dilemma

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 1:29 PM EST

Greg Sargent points us to Mitt Romney's latest statement on the economy:

We welcome the fact that jobs were created and unemployment declined. Unfortunately, these numbers cannot hide the fact that President Obama’s policies have prevented a true economic recovery. We can do better. Last week, we learned that the economy grew only 1.7% in 2011, the slowest growth in a non-recession year since the end of World War II. As a result.....blah blah blah.

Alas, poor Mitt. Now he knows what it feels like to be Barack Obama. For the past two years Obama has basically been forced to say that, sure, the economy is bad, but it would have been even worse without his policies in place. That might be true or it might not, but it's sure not a vote getter.

Now Romney's on the other end of that argument. Sure, the economy is getting better, but it would be even better still without Obama's policies. Again, maybe that's true and maybe it's not, but no one cares. If the economy is getting better, then people are happy and they're going to vote for the guy in the White House. Romney had better figure out something better than that if he wants to have any chance of victory in November.

What Does Komen's Latest Statement on Planned Parenthood Really Mean?

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 1:27 PM EST
Susan G. Komen founder Nancy Brinker.

Breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen for the Cure has reversed its decision to stop funding cancer screening referrals by Planned Parenthood, according to a letter from founder Nancy Brinker first obtained by Tom Benning at the Dallas Morning News and posted on the organization's website.

The letter reads in part:

Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation. We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.

Our only goal for our granting process is to support women and families in the fight against breast cancer. Amending our criteria will ensure that politics has no place in our grant process. We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

It's not entirely clear what this means. Since their initial announcement on Tuesday, Komen representatives have offered an avalanche of shifting explanations for their decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. Those justifications have ranged from a new policy forbidding funding any organization if it or one of its affiliates was under any kind of government investigation to arguing that the problem was that some Planned Parenthood affiliates offered referrals instead of mammograms. But other organizations that received grants from Komen (such as Penn State) were not held to the same standard regarding investigations, and the probe of Planned Parenthood, initiated by an anti-abortion Republican congressman, was seen by critics as political witch hunt. There are problems with the referral argument, too. As my colleague Kate Sheppard wrote on Thursday, criticism of Planned Parenthood over not performing mammograms was something of a "red herring," because "If you have health insurance and a primary care physician or gynecologist, that is generally the person who will refer you for additional care if they find reason for concern after an initial screening. But if a woman doesn't have insurance or a regular doctor, clinics like Planned Parenthood are her point of entry."

Given what Komen officials have said about their new standards requiring direct services, Friday's letter leaves one big question—whether Planned Parenthood meets Komen's criteria for future grants—still unresolved. Komen has not responded to journalists' requests for clarification, telling the Washington Post's Ezra Klein that its statement "speaks for itself."

Throughout the backlash, Komen's leadership insisted its decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood was not political. Although Brinker herself is a former Bush administration official and has given thousands of dollars to Republicans over the years, Komen has not been widely seen as a partisan organization. But Karen Handel, Komen's senior vice president for public policy, is a former Republican secretary of state from Georgia who is avowedly anti-abortion. A report from Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic suggested the Planned Parenthood decision had been "driven" by Handel, and the new standards were a mere pretext for eliminating Komen's funding for Planned Parenthood. (No retraction or correction has been made, and Goldberg says he stands by his reporting.) On Friday morning, Goldberg posted internal memos from Komen instructing employees on how to properly spin the decision.

The outcry seems to have helped fundraising at both organizations. On Thursday, both Komen and Planned Parenthood announced large donations, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledging $250,000 to Planned Parenthood and Brinker saying that contributions to Komen were up "one hundred percent."

UPDATE: A Komen board member tells the Washington Post's Greg Sargent that "It would be unfair to expect the group to commit to future grants."

UPDATE II: Planned Parenthood sends out a statement saying:

In recent weeks, the treasured relationship between the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Planned Parenthood has been challenged, and we are now heartened that we can continue to work in partnership toward our shared commitment to breast health for the most underserved women. We are enormously grateful that the Komen Foundation has clarified its grantmaking criteria, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with Komen partners, leaders and volunteers. What these past few days have demonstrated is the deep resolve all Americans share in the fight against cancer, and we honor those who are at the helm of this battle.

The crucial question remains whether or not that partnership actually exists after today, or whether this is just a more amicable divorce.

Komen Foundation Completes Its Triple Backflip

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 1:26 PM EST

When the Komen Foundation cut off its breast cancer screening grants to Planned Parenthood a few days ago, they said it was because of a new policy that bars grants to organizations under investigation. Then they backtracked, and said that it was actually because Planned Parenthood doesn't perform mammograms itself, but only provides referrals. Today, I guess we're back to excuse #1:

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Foundation Friday announced it would revise a controversial new policy that barred the organization from funding Planned Parenthood....“Our original desire was to fulfill our fiduciary duty to our donors by not funding grant applications made by organizations under investigation,” a Friday statement said. “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.”

Okey dokey. I guess the next step is to see if Komen actually continues their grants or not. More from Adam Serwer here.

Quote of the Day: The Rapidity and Volume of Electrons

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 12:53 PM EST

With 1.8 seconds to go in Wednesday's Kings-Blue Jackets game, the clock mysteriously stopped for about a second, giving the Kings just enough time to score a last minute goal and win the game. The Blue Jackets are understandably suspicious, but Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi explains it all here:

Those clocks are sophisticated instruments that calculate time by measuring electrical charges called coulombs.

Coulombs! Please go on, Mr. Science:

Given the rapidity and volume of electrons that move through the measuring device the calibrator must adjust at certain points, which was the delay you see. The delay is just recalibrating for the clock moving too quickly during the 10-10ths of a second before the delay. This ensures that the actual playing time during a period is exactly 20 minutes. That is not an opinion. That is science. Amazing device, quite frankly.

It's amazing, all right.

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Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in January

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 12:10 PM EST

Today is new jobs day, and my usual chart is below. It shows the number of net new jobs created over the past few years; that is, the number of new jobs above the 90,000 per month needed just to keep up with population growth and tread water. In January, that amounted to 153,000 net new jobs, pushing the headline unemployment rate down to 8.3%. That's pretty good news. Brad Plumer has a useful warning about data revisions here. Jared Bernstein provides some context and details here. Matt Yglesias talks about what we need to do to keep the recovery going here.

How Will Mitt Romney Spin These Jobs Numbers?

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 11:30 AM EST
A jobs rally sponsored by the AFL-CIO union.

Mitt Romney never misses a chance to hammer President Obama for supposedly tanking the US economy. He accuses Obama of heaping on job-killing regulations and jacking up taxes on businesses large and small. "Obama's economic failure," the Romney campaign calls it.

But Romney will need some fancy rhetorical footwork to spin away the jobs numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday, which offer arguably the most optimistic snapshot of the American job market seen in four or five years.

The headline unemployment rate dropped for the third month in a row, to 8.3 percent. The private sector created 257,000 jobs, and although the government sector lost 14,000 jobs, that still meant a net gain of 243,000 jobs overall. To boot, the number of jobs added in December was revised up. The BLS now believes the economy added 203,000 jobs in December, 3,000 more than initially thought. November's jobs numbers were revised upwards, too, to 157,000—57,000 higher than the previous estimate. That means job market growth was stronger in those months than originally thought, and the recovery continues to gain momentum.

Not all the news was rosy. Long-term unemployment—those out of work for six months or more—held steady at 5.5 million people, or 43 percent of the unemployed. And the overall unemployment rate, including the underemployed and those who've stopped looking for work, dipped by just a tenth of a percentage point, to 15.1 percent.

Still, the reaction to the jobs numbers was cheery all around. Moody's Analytics economist Mark Zandi said, "This is unambiguous. Everything is good." Financial blogger Felix Salmon called January's report "positively glowing."

Back to the presidential race. Does Friday's job report significantly boost Obama's re-election chances? You bet, at least according to New York Times stats guru Nate Silver. Silver pegs Obama's "magic jobs number," the monthly net job creation total needed to win re-election, at about 150,000. The US economy netted nearly 100,000 more jobs than that last month.

In other words, Friday's numbers are not just good news for American workers but especially for Obama and his re-election chances. Mitt Romney has his work cut out for him trying to explain away these numbers.

Romney Backer: He Does "Beautifully" Around Rich People

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 11:17 AM EST

Now he's a quote from a supporter that may not help Mitt Romney that much:

It's kind of hard for Romney to come across being a regular Joe. But put him in a room full of 400 business guys that are all successful, that relate to him, he comes off beautifully.

So said Daniel Staton, chair of the FriendFinder Networks, who attended a ritzy Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton. From Bloomberg:

One evening in late September, Mitt Romney supporters gathered at the $3 million Boca Raton, Florida, home of Marc Leder, the Sun Capital Partners Inc. co- founder behind the takeovers of retailers Friendly Ice Cream Corp., Limited stores and ShopKo Stores Inc.

Waiters served brie-stuffed French toast and short-rib tartlets as guests including Daniel Staton, chairman of social- networking company FriendFinder Networks Inc. (FFN), lingered about the 10,657 square-foot (990 square-meter), 6-bedroom waterfront home. Then they gathered inside for a half-hour speech by Romney, whose years of buying and selling companies for Bain Capital LLC left him with a worth of as much as $250 million and a natural rapport with the crowd.

It was after being impressed by that 30-minute-long speech that Staton made his comment about Romney. He may as well have said, "Romney really feels our pain."

Film Review: The Eerie Dance Drama of "Pina"

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Pina

HANWAY FILMS

103 minutes

Pina, nominated for this year's Documentary Feature Academy Award, is a 3-D tribute to famed post-Expressionist German choreographer Pina Bausch. The film teeters somewhere between a documentary and a performance, structured by interpretations of four of Bausch’s most famous dances. I went into the film knowing nothing about the choreographer, and barely anything about dance, but somehow that didn't matter—it hooked me straight away.