2012 - %3, August

Taxes vs. Chicken Sandwiches at the New York Times

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 12:02 PM EDT

Today Bob Somerby takes a look at how the New York Times treated Catherine Rampell's story about Mitt Romney's tax plan, the one that cuts taxes on the rich and raises them on the middle class:

Her report totaled 423 words. It was crammed at the bottom of page A10. It didn’t even make the front page of the newspaper’s National section.

By way of contrast:

Last Friday, the Times devoted 1001 words (and some sexy-time photos) to the state of strip clubs in Tampa, where the GOP will hold its convention. (This was the featured report on the National section’s front page.) Today, the Times devotes 861 words to an airy-fairy report about the way the Chick-fil-A chain is viewed in Atlanta, its hometown, with an emphasis on the way those southern (white) folk think about things like this.

Kim Severson’s report about southerners and their chicken appears on page one of the National section, complete with a double headline and a color photo of a guy eating his chicken. Along with its superior placement, it got twice as much space as Rampell’s report about the world’s craziest plan.

There's more, and it's worth reading the whole thing. I'll add a couple of things, though. First, I don't really have the heartburn Bob does over the fact that the Times runs human interest stories, even if some of them are kind of dumb. One man's dumb is another man's intriguing. Second, I'll give the Times a few more weeks to see what they do with the Romney tax story. Rampell's piece was just a next-day report on a piece of news, but it's entirely possible that the Times plans much more extensive coverage of both Obama's and Romney's tax plans in the future, with data collected from more than just a single study. I'm willing to wait a few weeks to find out.

That said, we could indeed wish that our nation's news outlets had a little more time for important but number-heavy policy pieces, especially during presidential campaign season. After all, they've shown in the past that they have the time and ability to make this stuff comprehensible when they apply some resources to it. This is, frankly, even more important than usual this year, since Mitt Romney is very deliberately trying to run the most policy-free campaign I can remember in my lifetime. Given his immense war chest, he'll get away with it unless the national media insists on making it a Page 1 topic.

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Bonus Chart of the Day: Public vs. Private Employment Under Bush and Obama

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 11:24 AM EDT

Adapted from Matt Yglesias, here's a chart showing the growth of private employment (red line) and state/local/federal government employment (blue line) during the past two administrations. The government employment line has been shifted up so it starts at the same point as the private employment line.

Under Bush, government employment increased by 1.7 million and private employment decreased by 0.6 million. Under Obama so far, government employment has decreased by 0.6 million and private employment has increased by 0.3 million. Just thought you'd like to know.

The Wall Street Journal's Long War on Science

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 11:20 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has claimed in recent years that the science of climate change is "disputable," that global warming is just a "fad-scare," and that proposals to deal with it are merely attempts to exert "political control." That the paper keeps repeating these tired claims is not news.

It is news, though, that the Journal's editorial board has made the same series of claims about every major environmental concern in recent history—not only climate change, but acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, too. Media Matters for America has put together a series of timelines showing the Journal repeatedly arguing that we don't know enough about an environmental problem, protesting that dealing with it would cost too much money, and dismissing questions about what to do as too "political." The full analysis is here. This is the acid rain timeline:

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in July

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 10:51 AM EDT

The government's latest jobs report is out, so here's my usual monthly jobs chart, adjusted for population growth to show actual net job creation. It's finally in positive territory for the first time since March. However, because more people are looking for work (which is basically good news), the unemployment rate actually rose, from 8.22% to 8.25%. Due to rounding, this means the headline unemployment rate increased from 8.2% to 8.3%.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 3, 2012

Fri Aug. 3, 2012 10:33 AM EDT

Combat engineers with the 459th Engineer Company from Bridgeport, W.Va. prepare to maneuver sections of an Improved Ribbon Bridge in a Bridge Erection Boat on the Arkansas River at Fort Chaffee, Ark. The floating bridge, which took three hours to complete, was the culmination event during River Assault 2012. Photo by the US Army.

"Killer Joe": William Friedkin's Bloody, Sleazy, Brilliant Trailer-Trash Opera

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Juno Temple as Dottie Smith.

Killer Joe
LD Entertainment
102 minutes

Killer Joe is the best film of 2012 thus far—provided that you don't mind pervy, blood-caked, nihilistic, claustrophobic, morally deviant, unstoppably depraved, ultimately pointless fare. To give you a taste of what you're in for, allow me to paint a picture of one of the movie's tamer sequences:

In a desolate town outside of Dallas, a blonde preteen wearing a tight black dress from an outlet store stands in her dad's trailer. Their home is covered in litter, muck, and grease. The girl, Dottie Smith (played by British actress Juno Temple), proceeds to model her new outfit for her father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), who tells her, "You look like a goddamn movie star." Her giddiness quickly evapporates as her dad informs her that tonight she is to be pimped out as "retainer" to Dallas detective Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a part-time hitman who craves young flesh. Dottie rushes back into the bedroom, repeatedly screaming "I have to change!" as tears and snot run down her face. Ansel practically kicks down the door in his effort to brutishly pull her out of the room. Soon enough, "Killer Joe" arrives, beaming with a cold, lustful stare. Soon enough, he casually orders her to strip.

The feel-good movie of the year this is not.

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Photos: Despite Record Melt, Signs of Hope for Greenland Ice

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

To view photo descriptions, click full screen, then "Show info."

One of the primary forces behind climate-change-driven sea level rise is the Greenland Ice Sheet. Covering 80 percent of Greenland, it's the world's second-largest chunk of ice (after the Antarctic Ice Sheet) and dumps 240 billion tons of fresh water into the oceans every year, accounting for a full fifth of annual sea level rise. And in recent years it's been melting faster than ever, enough to make it a primary target of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has tapped teams of scientists to see what the full effect of the increased melting could be. Some reports say the rise worldwide from a disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet could be as much as a meter, enough to wreak havoc on places like New York City and low-lying Palau.

But a study out yesterday in Science paints a more optimistic picture: Even with global warming, the ice sheet may be able to slow its melting rate much faster than previously thought. A team of Danish researchers used archived aerial photos (shown in the slideshow above) of the ice sheet, dating back to the early '80s, to compare other episodes of rapid melting in the last few decades. What they show, lead author Kurt Kjær of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement, is that the ice sheet is dynamic, able to shift quickly from melting to holding firm; the record melt we've seen recently could be over in as soon as eight years. For that reason, he said, it's wrong to use the current melting rate to make predictions about sea level rise in the coming century, as some studies have done.

"It's too early to proclaim the 'ice sheet's future doom' and subsequent contribution to serious water problems for the world," he said. "It turns out that the ice sheet is able to more quickly stabilize itself in comparison to what many other models and computer calculations predict."

Photos courtesy of Niels J. Korsgaard and Anders A. Bjørk, Natural History Museum of Denmark

Will Congress Screw Underwater Homeowners on December 31?

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

I wrote a post on Wednesday about Ed DeMarco's decision not to participate in a new Treasury program of principal forgiveness for underwater homeowners. The main purpose of the post was to dig into the details and figure out what DeMarco's real issues were, so that if we were going to slag him, at least we were slagging him over the right stuff. As it turns out, one of DeMarco's biggest issues is his fear that a principal forgiveness program might encourage strategic defaults, which would wipe out any benefit the program might otherwise have. However, housing guru David Dayen wrote to let me know that although the mortgage industry complains constantly about the specter of strategic default, it almost never actually happens. It is, he wrote, "a dog that hasn't barked."

I think that's right, which makes DeMarco's reluctance to at least try principal forgiveness pretty inexcusable. If it had a long history of failure, that would be one thing. But if his agency's own models say the program would work, and there's no significant history of homeowners gaming the system by strategically defaulting, surely it's worth participating in the program and finding out for sure? It's not as if it couldn't be shut down in the future if it turned out to be unworkable.

David also pointed me to a new piece he has at Salon, suggesting that unless Congress acts the whole thing could be moot. The problem is simple: If the bank forgives, say, $50,000 in principal on your mortgage, the IRS counts that as income and you have to pay taxes on it. This would make the program less attractive at a minimum, and quite possibly completely out of reach. After all, the people this program would help probably don't have $10,000 lying around to pay the taxman. If they did, they wouldn't be in such trouble in the first place.

Back in 2007, Congress passed an exemption to this rule, and a few years later they extended it. But the extension runs out on December 31, the date of the fabled "fiscal cliff":

The difference now is that principal reductions and other debt relief are set to become more widespread…Because of the mortgage settlement, banks are mandated to forgive at least $10 billion of principal, as a punishment for using false documentation to foreclose on homeowners, among other abuses. Though this is a relatively small amount of forgiveness (homeowners have roughly $700 billion in negative equity on their mortgages), the implications for the borrowers who receive it are significant.

…At this point, only Congress can fix this problem by extending the exemption, and there are two parallel efforts underway to do so…Given that this is in essence a tax cut—the Congressional Budget Office estimates that excluding principal reductions from taxation for two more years will save recipients $2.7 billion—many Democrats in Washington believe that Republicans will eventually get onboard. But that's no guarantee. "I'm not sure we can get that extended," Rep. Miller said. "Republicans are not keen on principal reduction in the first place. When we extended the law in 2010, that was considered a give to Democrats." Given that the tax issue would in all likelihood bring principal reductions to a screeching halt, Republicans could view resisting an extension as a way to stop something where they have ideological opposition. And it could be used as a bargaining chip in other negotiations.

Perhaps Americans for Tax Reform, the Grover Norquist outfit that opposes taxes in all their myriad forms, could start worrying about a real tax increase like this instead of a ginned-up faux tax outrage over prizes that American Olympians get for winning medals in London. Unfortunately, this tax increase would hit working and middle-class families the hardest, and conservatives have always had a hard time worrying much about their taxes.

This Week in Dark Money

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

the money shot

 

quote of the week

"The irony is that the more explicitly the ad pushes one particular candidate, the less disclosure is required."
Paul Ryan (no relation to the congressman) of the Campaign Legal Center, which helped successfully argue Van Hollen v. FEC. The ruling requires 501(c)(4) groups operating as "social welfare" organizations to disclose the names of donors who contribute money for so-called issue ads. Those ads air within 60 days of a general election and mention candidates without explicitly telling viewers how they should vote. In response, some dark-money groups plan to push the limits of their tax-exempt status even further and dodge Van Hollen with ads urging viewers to vote for or against candidates.

 

attack ad of the week

The dark-money group Secure America Now has released an ad that hammers President Obama's foreign policy, juxtaposing footage of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks with a woman firing off a litany of claims, which the Center for Public Integrity fact-checked. Among other things, she says Obama has "all but abandoned Israel," implies that Iran has a nuclear weapon, and suggests that torture led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden. Watch:

  

stat of the week

$5.8 billion: The Center for Responsive Politics' estimate of how much the 2012 elections will cost, a 7 percent jump from 2008. For perspective, that's how much JP Morgan has said it lost in its much-publicized deal gone bad, and it's also more than double the entire budget for the National Park Service. The Center estimates that the presidential race alone will cost $2.5 billion, including "wild card" outside spending groups. (The Obama campaign's fundraising is just shy of the record pace he set in 2008.) In addition to the ramped-up spending by outside groups, congressional candidates and political parties are both expected to outdo their 2008 spending.

race of the week

With the help of super-PACs and dark-money groups, tea party favorite—and conspiracy theorist—Ted Cruz narrowed a 3-to-1 fundraising deficit and defeated Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a Senate primary runoff election Tuesday in Texas. Dewhurst's campaign raised $33 million ($25 million of which came from the candidate, a wealthy energy investor) to Cruz's $10.2 million. But outside groups supporting Cruz outspent those backing Dewhurst by $8 million to $6.5 million. The anti-tax super-PAC Club for Growth Action spent $5.5 million helping Cruz, the most it's invested in any race so far this year. Here's one of the group's spots:

 

more mojo dark-money coverage

IRS: Toothless. FEC: "Thoroughly Broken": What little campaign money regulation remains isn't enforced any more.
Karl Rove's Catch-22: Crossroads GPS and other nonprofits face new pressure to reveal who bankrolls their ads.
Political Ad Data Comes Online—But It's Not Searchable.

 

more must-reads

• Americans for Prosperity, a dark-money group backed by the Koch brothers, says it's modeling its voter-turnout drive after George Soros'. Bloomberg
• Outside groups are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns, but that didn't stop Karl Rove from holding an off-the-record fundraising session with a top Romney strategist. CNN
• How many Americans think a super-PAC is a "popular video game for smartphones"? Washington Post

There is Value in Believing Things That Aren't True

| Fri Aug. 3, 2012 12:00 AM EDT

David Brooks on how much credit we deserve for the things we accomplish:

As an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.

Actually, that's not a bad two-sentence summary. The rest of the column isn't bad either.