2012 - %3, September

Sorry, But the Job of Planetary Protection Officer is Already Taken

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 9:40 PM PDT

Did you know that NASA has a Planetary Protection Officer? Well, they do, and her name is Catharine Conley.

Unfortunately, she does not have superpowers, and the planet she's in charge of protecting is Mars, not Earth. Also unfortunately, NASA seems to have ignored her during the preparation for the launch of the Curiosity lander, in the process violating its Prime Directive and possibly introducing terrestrial microbes to Mars. We just don't do a very good job of protecting planets, do we?

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15 Percent of Ohio GOPers Say Romney Deserves Credit for Bin Laden Raid

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 8:52 PM PDT
We're pretty sure this is a photo of Mitt Romney planning the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

In what some (one guy on Twitter) have called "a stroke of comic genius," Public Policy Polling decided to ask Ohio Republicans who they thought "deserved more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. In what some (my colleague Tim Murphy) have called "the greatest thing ever," a full 15 percent of Ohio Republicans surveyed said Romney deserved more credit than the president. Another 47 percent said they were "unsure." This led to all sorts of funny quips on Twitter:

This is amusing, but no one should take it particularly seriously. Significant percentages of Americans claim to believe all sorts of crazy things, and it's possible that a large percentage of the people who told PPP that Romney deserves credit for the bin Laden raid simply wanted to say eff-you to the president.

The poll didn't offer an option for "the Navy SEALs" or "the troops," who undoubtedly would have blown out Romney and Obama if they were options. The news in this poll—as much as any one poll can be news—is that it found Obama leading Romney by five percentage points in Ohio. (The full poll results are here.) No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Here's a reality check on the state of the presidential race: Nate Silver, the New York Times' polling guru, now gives the president a nearly 80 percent chance of winning reelection.

Within Hours, Mitt Romney Takes Back Everything He Said About Preexisting Conditions

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 5:01 PM PDT

On national TV on Sunday morning, with millions of people watching, Mitt Romney told David Gregory that there were parts of Obamacare he actually liked. In fact, he said, one of the goals of his health care plan "is to make sure that those with preexisting conditions can get coverage." A few hours later, with approximately zero people listening, a spokesman quietly "clarified" what he meant:

In reference to how Romney would deal with those with preexisting conditions and young adults who want to remain on their parents’ plans, a Romney aide responded that there had been no change in Romney's position and that "in a competitive environment, the marketplace will make available plans that include coverage for what there is demand for. He was not proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features."

As it happens, we already have a competitive market for individual insurance. In addition, we already have demand for coverage of preexisting conditions. And yet, the marketplace doesn't make policies available to people with preexisting conditions.

Why? Because policies that cover preexisting conditions are big money losers unless you charge premiums high enough that no one could afford them. Because of that, nobody bothers to offer them in the first place. That's how the free market works. It would be nice if Romney could explain how he intends to square this circle.

It would also be nice if the mainstream press reported the fact that Romney doesn't plan to make sure those with preexisting conditions can get health coverage just as loudly as they reported his original misstatement. I'm not holding my breath.

UPDATE: BuzzFeed passes along yet another clarification. According to an aide, "Gov. Romney will ensure that discrimination against individuals with preexisting conditions who maintain continuous coverage is prohibited."

This has long been Romney's position, and it's not clear if it's meaningful or not. This kind of protection has been the law of the land since 1996 for people with group coverage. And people who lose group coverage already qualify for individual COBRA coverage for 18 months. So the only way Romney's statement means anything is if he's saying he would pass a law that requires insurance companies to offer permanent individual coverage at a reasonable price to people who lose their group coverage. Needless to say, Romney has never actually committed to that particular detail.

UPDATE 2: And keep in mind that even if Romney did commit to this detail, it's still far, far less than Obamacare's preexisting conditions provision, which is what Romney originally implied he supported. Obamacare simply guarantees that you can get health coverage, full stop, no matter what preexisting conditions you may have.

Mitt Romney Unveils Yet Another Secret Plan

| Sun Sep. 9, 2012 8:21 AM PDT

Now that he's definitively trailing in the polls and needs to appeal to non-wingnuts, it turns out that Mitt Romney doesn't hate Obamacare quite as much as he's been telling the tea partiers for the past year:

"Of course there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I'm going to put in place," he said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. ''One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage." Romney also said he would allow young adults to keep their coverage under their parents' health-insurance.

Under normal circumstances, I'd write a long post about how ridiculous this is. If you guarantee that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage, people will game the system by getting coverage only when they get sick. To avoid that, you have to create a stable risk pool for insurers by mandating that everyone maintain coverage all the time. And if you have a mandate, then you need to subsidize poor people, which in turn means you have to have a funding source for the subsidies. More here.

Like I said, that's what I'd do under normal circumstances. But host David Gregory didn't bother asking Romney about any of these pesky details, and I guess I can hardly blame him since Romney wouldn't have answered. This is just another one of Romney's secret plans, like which tax loopholes he'll close, how he'll win the war in Afghanistan, and who will pay the price if Medicare costs rise faster than his growth cap. Romney has diligently refused to answer any of these questions, and he's even been fairly honest about why: if he explained all this stuff, some of the answers would be unpopular and the Obama campaign would point that out.

So that's that: in Romneyland it's ice cream sundaes all day long. And their plan to hit the gym to work off the calories? No need to worry your pretty little heads over that. They'll tell you about it later.

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, a spokesman "clarified" Romney's statement within hours. It turns out he doesn't have any intention of making sure that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage after all. More here.

Obama is Apparently a Tougher Negotiator Than You Think

| Sat Sep. 8, 2012 6:14 PM PDT

I never have a good sense of how much to trust Bob Woodward, so I'd take the following recreated dialog with a grain of salt. Still, here it is. It's all taking place at the tail end of last year's debt ceiling talks, after John Boehner has pulled out of negotiations twice, House Republicans are loudly refusing any compromise at all and threatening to let the nation default, and the only GOP offer on the table would raise the debt ceiling for less than a year. If he agreed to it, President Obama would have to fight the same battle all over again in the middle of an election year:

“So,” the president said, “if we give $1.2 trillion now in spending cuts” — the amount in the House bill to get the first increase in the debt ceiling for about six to nine months — “what happens next time?” The Republicans would then come back next year, in the middle of the presidential campaign, and impose more conditions on the next debt ceiling increase. He could not give the Republicans that kind of leverage, that kind of weapon. It was hostage taking. It was blackmail. “This will forever change the relationship between the presidency and the Congress.

“Imagine if, when Nancy Pelosi had become speaker, she had said to George W. Bush, ‘End the Iraq war, or I’m going to cause a global financial crisis.’ ”

So, Obama said, they had to break the Republicans on this. Otherwise, they would be back whenever it suited them politically.

They were out of options, Geithner said. The only one might be accepting the House bill, loathsome as it might be. “The 2008 financial crisis will be seen as a minor blip if we default,” he said.

The president said, “The Republicans are forcing the risk of a default on us. I can’t stop them from doing that. We can have the fight now, or we can have the fight later on, but the fight is coming to us.”

So, no, Obama said, he was not going to cave. Period. He said good night, got up and left. He was very agitated.

....Obama never had to confront the veto question. A few days later, House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan. The final plan accepted a debt limit increase that would take the country through the 2012 presidential contest. It also postponed $2.4 trillion in spending cuts until early 2013.

Interesting. If this is really how it all went down, Obama is a harder-nosed negotiator than most liberals have been giving him credit for.

Can Spain Get Competitive With Germany Fast Enough to Save the Euro?

| Sat Sep. 8, 2012 2:28 PM PDT

On Thursday I wrote that fiscal imbalances were the eurozone's fundamental problem. In a nutshell, if the euro is going to survive, either periphery countries have to become more competitive and boost their exports or else core countries will have to subsidize them with gigantic amounts of aid pretty much forever. Unfortunately, neither of those options seems very likely.

But James Wimberley says things might not be as bleak as I think. Spain is the current epicenter of Europe's problems, and Gavyn Davies writes in the Financial Times that Spain's labor costs have been converging toward the European average for the past three years and could become fully competitive within another couple of years. James says this actually understates the improvement Spain is making:

Spain itself is part of the Euro average. So are the other countries in trouble: Greek and Irish labour costs have also shrunk, and Italian ones have plateaued. If you look at Spanish labour costs relative to the trade-surplus Euro core (France, Germany, Netherlands, etc) the improvement is even sharper.

I was curious about that, so I took a look at a simpler comparison: Spain vs. Germany. In this case, it turns out that convergence is more like three or four years away, not two:

The main reason the chart begins in 2000 is because that's when the data series starts, but it's not a bad starting point anyway. 2000 is just before the big post-euro runup, and represents a time when Spain and Germany were fairly competitive with each other. If they can return to a point where they're relatively as competitive as 2000, Spain could start digging itself out of its troubles and the euro could survive.

But that's a big if. It assumes no big shocks — like, say, Greece exiting the euro. It assumes that both Spain and Germany maintain their paths of the past three years. It assumes that the euro can survive three or four more years of fiscal imbalances. It assumes that austerity doesn't destroy Spain's economy completely. It assumes that being competitive with Germany is enough to make Spain competitive with the rest of the world too.

That's a lot of ifs, and it's why I remain fairly pessimistic. Still, it goes to show that, outside of Greece, Europe's problems may not be impossible. If Germany were willing to do something to accelerate convergence between the core and periphery, not just stay on the present path, and commit to gradually rising cross-country fiscal transfers, then better days might not even be all that far off. I'm not sure what the odds are of that, though.

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Corn on MSNBC: The Key Message in Obama's Speech

Fri Sep. 7, 2012 5:34 PM PDT

David Corn and Krystal Ball joined Al Sharpton on MSNBC to break down the underlying values that informed Obama's DNC finale and contrast the vision of America he put forth with the worldview that was on display at the Republican National Convention. Also read Corn's analysis of the speech, Kevin Drum's less enthused reaction, and the Climate Desk's close look at the section on climate change policy.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Putin Leads Endangered Cranes in Hang Glider

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 5:26 PM PDT

This story first appeared on the Guardian website.

In the end he didn't have to wear a beak. But Vladimir Putin did don white overalls and big black goggles as he took to the skies over northern Siberia in a motorized hang glider to help endangered cranes begin their migration to wintering grounds in Iran and India.

Unfortunately, no one had told the young birds, who only formed up behind Russia's stunt-loving head of state on his second time in the air. On his first flight Putin was accompanied by only one of the Siberian white cranes.

Putin blamed strong winds for the initial failure of the birds to fly with him. But he described the cranes as "pretty lads" when journalists asked what he thought of them after landing.

The motorized hang glider—in which he was accompanied by the seasoned pilot Igor Nikitin—proved a handful. Putin said it was harder to control than a jet fighter.

Putin, who is a few days short of his 60th birthday, has spent about a year and a half preparing for the trip with the cranes and received 17 hours of advance training on the motorized hang glider.

Wednesday's flight took place in Russia's far north, by the banks of the Siberian river Ob, at the site of a project that rears cranes in their traditional nesting grounds. The birds have almost been driven to extinction by hunters targeting them along their migration routes through central Asia.

After his flight Putin donated the hang glider, which his press spokesman said he had purchased with his own money, to the crane conservation project and shared fish soup and tea prepared over a campfire with the scientists working there, the state-owned paper Rossisskaya Gazeta reported.

Putin followed his close encounter with birds with a close encounter with sea life. On his arrival on Thursday at the Asia Pacific Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which Russia is hosting, he visited a new aquarium in the city. Staff pulled an octopus out of its tank, which Putin proceeded to stroke, Interfax reported.

The cranes will now remain under the supervision of the presidential administration, which already cultivates Putin's nature-loving credentials by assisting schemes dedicated to preserving polar bears, tigers, leopards, and whales in Russia.

Shortly after the news of Putin's successful flight was reported by state media, the Kremlin-controlled English language television channel Russia Today broadcast the president's first interview since winning his third term in March.

Asked about the rock band Pussy Riot, Putin declined to comment on the severity of the two-year sentence handed down to Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their "punk prayer" protest in Moscow's main cathedral, but chose to focus on the "moral" aspect of the case.

In particular, he reminded viewers of the orgy performed by members of the radical art group Voina in Moscow's Biological Museum in 2008 to protest against the election of Dmitry Medvedev, who replaced Putin in the Kremlin for four years, in which Tolokonnikova took part.

"Group sex is better than one-on-one because, as in any sort of collective work, you can shirk off," Putin said.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 September 2012

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 11:47 AM PDT

Today's catblogging demonstrates the changing of the guard around here. For many years, freshly laundered sheets were Inkblot's exclusive preserve. In fact, the entire bed was his exclusive preserve. I guess he chased Domino off it once too many times. But that's slowly changing, and Domino is now spending increasing amounts of time curled up at our feet. Last week, for the first time in years, she gingerly sidled up to a pile of lovely, warm sheets, twirled around a few times to get her bearings, and then promptly fell asleep.

Today, however, she is being forced to take terrible, nasty, yucky little green pills. It's for her own good, but she doesn't believe us and she's fighting pretty hard against the indignity of it all. It's only going to get worse over the next ten days, and I'm hoping the vet tells us we can just crush them up and put them in her cat food. We'll see.

A 25-Word Review of "The Words," Starring Bradley Cooper

| Fri Sep. 7, 2012 11:45 AM PDT

Bradley Cooper's ever-so-slight improvement over the toweringly awful "Hit & Run," released in August.

The Words
CBS Films
97 minutes

In this movie, struggling author Bradley Cooper plagiarizes a brilliant novel and then feels bad about the consequences. I feel bad about the consequences, too.

The latest entry in the Bradley Cooper Horror Show series gets a wide release on Friday, September 7. The film is rated PG-13, for emotional and dramatic unbearability. Click here for local showtimes and tickets, if you're looking to ruin your weekend.

 

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To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

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