2013...mewhat-popular - %2

Presidential Schmoozing Isn't Just For Republicans

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 11:53 AM EST

Sen. Joe Manchin lamented on Sunday that President Obama doesn't schmooze enough."It’s just hard to say no to a friend," he told Candy Crowley on CNN's State of the Union. Steve Benen is unimpressed:

Obama has gone further any modern president in bringing members of the opposing party into his cabinet....incorporating ideas from the opposing party’s agenda into his own policy plans....Obama invited several GOP lawmakers to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.”....How many of the invited Republicans accepted the invitation? None....Obama has hosted casual “get-to-know-you” gatherings; he’s taken Republicans out to dinner on his dime; he’s taken House Speaker Boehner out golfing; and he’s held Super Bowl and March Madness parties at the White House for lawmakers.

In general, I'm on Benen's side here. I think he probably overstates just how hard Obama has tried to be sociable, but in the end, I don't think it mattered. It's been a matter of settled public record for a long time that Republicans were dedicated to forming a united front of obstruction from the day Obama took office, and nothing he did was going to change that.

But in fairness, Manchin says in this interview that he's talking mostly about his fellow Democrats here. And this is an area where Obama's style probably has hurt him a bit. It hasn't hurt him a lot—ideology, self-interest, and political survival will always count for a lot more—but I imagine that Democrats in Congress would be willing to back Obama more strongly if they felt a personal connection with him. Most of them don't, and this has produced a more fractured party with less enthusiasm for backing difficult policies. Obamacare is probably a good example. Right now, when it's having so many birthing pains, is precisely when you want Democrats coming to its defense most passionately. That's a tough sell for obvious reasons, but I imagine that more of them would be stepping up if they felt that they owed it to their party leader. Ditto for other difficult policies, like the U-turn on Syria, the negotiations with Iran, and some of the pseudo-scandals of the past year. Strong relationships wouldn't have turned night into day on these issues, but I'll bet it would have helped.

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Today Is Your Last Chance to Sign Up For Obamacare*

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:43 AM EST

*OK, not really. This isn't literally your last chance to sign up for Obamacare. But if you want coverage to start on January 1, today's the deadline. Go sign up!

UPDATE: The Obama administration has extended the deadline by one day due to heavy traffic at healthcare.gov. So you now have until Tuesday to sign up for coverage that will start on January 1.

The Real Reason Why Mike Huckabee Is Toying With a 2016 Run

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:43 AM EST

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas turned presidential aspirant, has been largely inconsequential in Republican politics since he shuttered his 2008 campaign. Unlike the Sarah Palins and Jim DeMints of the Tea Party wing, Huckabee has played a small role in elevating party usurpers like senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The Christian Crusader has been mostly absent from politics, instead favoring punditry through cable news—a far more lucrative venture. As of 2011, Huckabee was earning half a million dollars a year from his show on Fox News, on top of extra income from his recently shuttered radio show and other paid appearances.

But being the runner-up of a now-distant presidential primary doesn't carry much political cache. So Huckabee has begun a concerted media effort to drum up interest in will-he-or-won't-he speculation about another presidential bid in 2016. First came a New York Times interview two weeks ago. "I’m keeping the door open," he told the paper. "I think right now the focus needs to be on 2014, but I’m mindful of the fact that there’s a real opportunity for me." Huckabee followed that up with an appearance on Fox News Sunday this past weekend, where he again played coy while highlighting his potential interest in a campaign. "I would say maybe at this point it is 50-50, but I don't know," Huckabee said.

First things first: A successful repeat of Huckabee's 2008 bid seems unlikely. The last time Huckabee successfully ran for public office was his gubernatorial reelection bid in 2002—not exactly material for a robust presidential campaign come 2016. Even if Huckabee chose to run once again, it's hard to imagine him carving out a space in the Republican 2016 primary. In 2008, he became the banner carrier for the religious right. Rick Santorum claimed that mantle in 2012 and appears poised to resume the crusade next time around. If Republican primary voters don't want a fresh face like Cruz, Paul, or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), it's likely they'll settle on Santorum, rather than Huckabee, as the next-in-line candidate.

So why the sudden interest? Well, as that Times article from earlier this month noted, Huckabee feels like he hasn't received his due for finishing second in the 2008 primary behind Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Part of that must be vanity, but calling attention to his standing in 2008 is also practical. Huckabee's political relevance is what got him his show on Fox. Prior to entering politics, Huckabee worked as a pastor, a solid life but hardly the one-percent dream he's living now. Thanks to that Fox News income, Huckabee lives in a $3 million Florida beach home. Huckabee acknowledged that it'd be tough to relinquish that lavish lifestyle when pushed in the Times interview. "And it’s why I’m not in a big hurry to do anything," he said. There's no better way to lock down that steady income than to rev up the media hype machine for another round of speculation about future presidential campaigns.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 23, 2013

Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:12 AM EST

A team of U.S. Army AH-64D Apaches from the 1-151 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, S.C. National Guard, take off from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., as part of an integrated live fire exercise with the U.S. Navy George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, December 16, 2013. While working with the Navy for this exercise, the 1-151 ARB mission was to find, fix and destroy small boat targets. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jamie Delk)

Miami and Los Angeles Sue Banking Giants Over the Sub-Prime Mortgage Debacle

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:03 AM EST

Some of the cities hardest hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis are fighting back with lawsuits against the banks whose predatory lending fueled the collapse of the housing market. Most recently, the city of Miami filed three separate suits against Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup, claiming their lending practices violated the federal Fair Housing Act and cost the city millions in tax revenue.

The cases, all of which were filed in the Southern District of Florida, focus on the banks' treatment of minority borrowers. According to the city, minority residents were routinely charged higher interest rates and fees than white loan applicants, regardless of their credit history. They were also stuck with other onerous terms—such as prepayment penalties, adjustable interest rates, and balloon payments—that increased their odds of falling into foreclosure.

It's no secret that some big banks discriminated against minority borrowers during the housing bubble. Racial bias ran so deep inside Wells Fargo's mortgage division that employees regularly referred to subprime mortgages as “ghetto loans" and African American borrowers as “mud people," according to testimony from former bank officials. In 2011, Bank of America paid $355 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit, charging that its Countrywide Financial unit steered hundreds of thousands of minority borrowers into predatory mortgages.

Lawyers for the city of Miami, which is roughly 60 percent Latino and 20 percent African American, argue that these discriminatory practices are one key reason that the fallout from the sub-prime lending frenzy hit the city so hard. "The State of Florida in general, and the City of Miami in particular have been devastated by the foreclosure crisis," reads the city's complaint. "As of October 2013, the State of Florida has the country’s highest foreclosure rate, and Miami has the highest foreclosure rate among the 20 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the country." The city is seeking compensation for the drop in real estate tax revenue due to foreclosures, which have further depressed property values, and for the cost of providing municipal services to abandoned homes.

In a written statement to the Miami Herald, Wells Fargo called the discrimination claims “unfounded allegations that don’t reflect our corporate values,” while Citigroup insisted that it “considers each applicant by the same objective criteria.” Bank of America also defended its lending practices as fair and said it had "responded urgently" to assist customers during the financial crisis.

Miami isn't the first city to take on the banking giants. Earlier this month, Los Angeles—which claims to have lost more than $78 billion in home value due to foreclosures—sued Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo on the same grounds. Richmond, California, a working-class Bay Area suburb, plans to rescue borrowers whose mortgages are underwater by seizing their properties using eminent domain. Homeowners will remain in their homes and be given new loans for amounts that reflect current values. And the city will have a fighting chance of shoring up its dwindling tax revenue. It's a good deal for everyone—except the bankers behind the housing implosion.

10 Reasons That Long-Term Unemployment Is a National Catastrophe

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 8:00 AM EST

Unemployment is bad. Obviously long-term unemployment is worse. But it's not just a little worse, it's horrifically worse. As a companion to our eight charts that describe the problem, here are the top ten reasons why long-term unemployment is such a national catastrophe:

  1. It's way higher than it's ever been before. When the headline unemployment rate peaked in 2010, it was actually a bit lower than the peak during the 1980 recession and only a point higher than the 1973 recession. As bad as it was, it was something we'd faced before. But the long-term unemployment rate is a whole different story. It peaked at a rate nearly double the worst we'd ever seen in the past, and it's been coming down only slowly ever since.
  2. It's widespread. There's a common belief that long-term unemployment mostly affects older workers and only in certain industries. In fact, with the exception of the construction industry, which was hurt especially badly during the 2007-08 recession, "the long-term unemployed are fairly evenly distributed across the age and industry spectrum."
  3. It's brutal. Obviously long-term unemployment produces a sharp loss of income, with all the stress that entails. But it does more. It produces deep distress, worse mental and physical health, higher mortality rates, hampers children’s educational progress, and lowers their future earnings. Megan McArdle summarizes the research findings this way: "Short of death or a debilitating terminal disease, long-term unemployment is about the worst thing that can happen to you in the modern world. It’s economically awful, socially terrible, and a horrifying blow to your self-esteem and happiness.  It cuts you off from the mass of your peers and puts stress on your family, making it likely that further awful things, like divorce or suicide, will be in your near future."
  4. It's long-lasting. Cristobal Young reports that "job loss has consequences that linger even after people return to work. Finding a job, on average, recovers only about two thirds of the initial harm of losing a job....Evidence from Germany finds subjective scarring of broadly similar magnitude that lasts for at least 3 to 5 years."
  5. It dramatically reduces the prospect of getting another job. There's always been plenty of anecdotal evidence that employers don't like job candidates who have long spells of unemployment, but recent research suggests that this attitude has become even worse in the current weak economy. Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed, sent out a bunch of fictitious resumes for 600 job openings. Each batch of resumes was slightly different (industry experience, job switching history, etc.), and all of these things had a small effect on the chance of getting a callback. But one thing had a huge effect: being unemployed for six months or more. If you were one of the long-term unemployed, it was all but impossible to even get considered for a job opening.
  6. It turns cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment. What we've mostly had during the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery has been cyclical unemployment. This is unemployment caused by a simple lack of demand, and it goes away when the economy picks up. But structural unemployment is worse: it's caused by a mismatch between the skills employers want and the skills workers have. It's far more pernicious and far harder to combat, and it's what happens when cyclical unemployment is allowed to metastasize. "Skills become obsolete, contacts atrophy, information atrophies, and they get stigmatized," says Harry Holzer of Georgetown University." Economists call this effect "hysteresis," and there's plenty of evidence that we're suffering from it for perhaps the first time in recent American history.
  7. It hurts the economy. A recent study, which Paul Krugman called the "blockbuster paper" of last month's IMF research conference, concludes that "by tolerating high unemployment we have inflicted huge damage on our long-run prospects." How much? The authors suggest that not only has it cut GDP growth, it's even cut potential GDP growth. They estimate the damage at about 7 percent per year—which represents a loss of roughly $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.
  8. Cutting off unemployment benefits makes things even worse. Cutting off benefits obviously hurts the unemployed in the pocketbook. But there's more to it than that. Since you have to keep looking for a job to qualify for benefits, many discouraged job seekers have less incentive to keep looking when their benefits run out. This means they drop out of the official numbers and are no longer counted as formally unemployed. In other words, because we've allowed unemployment benefits to expire for so many people, the real long-term unemployment rate is probably even worse than the official figures say it is.
  9. There still aren't enough jobs to go around. In a normal economy, there might be good reason to keep unemployment benefits short: it motivates people to go out and look for work. But that's not the problem right now. The number of job seekers for every open job has declined since its 2009 peak, but there are still three job seekers for every available job, which means that this simply isn't a matter of incentives. It's a matter of there being too few jobs for everyone. Conservative scholar Michael Strain uses a simple analogy to get this point across: "If you look at the long-term unemployed, a good chunk of them have children. A good chunk are married. A good chunk are college-educated or have had some college and in their prime earning years....It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search."
  10. Practically everyone, liberal and conservative alike, agrees that this is a catastrophe. And yet, we continue to do nothing about it. Republicans in Congress have declined to extend unemployment benefits further, and they show no sign of changing their minds when Congress reconvenes in January. Democrats have a plan to fight for further benefits by linking them to a farm bill that Republicans want to pass, and right now that's pretty much the best hope we have to offer the workers who have been most brutally savaged by the Great Recession.

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Meet Pentatonix's "Little Drummer Boy"

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 6:00 AM EST

In college, when I played violin in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, our principal cellist was a guy named Kevin Olusola, a goofy, Chinese-studying, bear-hugging premed. Nowadays, Kevin (a.k.a "KO") is known among YouTube fans as the beatboxer for Pentatonix (PTX), the a cappella group whose version of "Little Drummer Boy" is hovering at the very top of Billboard's Holiday chart. In 2011, a Texas vocal trio came across a video clip of his "celloboxing"—beatboxing and playing the cello at the same time. They tracked him down and asked him to join them for NBC's "The Sing-Off."

Two years later, he's helped the group rack up more than 230 million YouTube views, score gigs on Conan and The Today Show, and release three albums. Kevin's look has evolved since college—less backpack, more swagger—but he's just as enthusiastic in a leather jacket, laying down the beat for an Imagine Dragons song, as he once was in a tux performing Beethoven symphonies. I caught up with Kevin to talk about how he got started, the trickiest sounds to make, and Pentatonix's runaway success. But first, the celloboxing video:

MJ: Let's start with the basics. How did you get into beatboxing?

KO: There was a song by Musiq Soul Child called "Just Friends." It starts off with a melody line where he's beatboxing also. When I heard that, I got hooked. I kept doing it and doing it.

MJ: Did you drive your parents and teachers crazy?

"This is a time in music where we think that people are looking for a more raw, organic sound."

KO: Oh my goodness, I can't even begin to tell you. My dad and my mom! Especially my dad. I would do it all the time in the car, and he just always thought it was annoying. He was like, "Stop making that noise!" My junior year of high school, I joined the a capella group at Andover and we produced a CD, and I showed it to him and he got it then. When I started pairing cello and beatboxing and he saw that video, he was like, "I can't believe this is possible!" Now, with Pentatonix, he's heard our record and he's our biggest fan. I'm so thankful that he gave me a chance to pursue this, because for Nigerian parents I think it's very difficult to let their child do something artistic. That's not necessarily a stable path to making money or having success.

MJ: Is there any overlap in the skills it takes to be a good cellist and the skills it takes to be a good beatboxer?

Self-Promotion Watch: Lead and Crime in Postwar America

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 1:18 AM EST

I'm usually a little reticent about tooting my own horn, but since I've always had a lot of respect for James Surowiecki, I was sort of chuffed to see this in his year-end roundup of his favorite business stories:

Kevin Drum’s brilliant Mother Jones piece, “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead,” explores the relationship between lead in the environment and crime (and a host of other social ills). It is not, I guess, a classic business story. But it’s a rigorous and enormously enlightening look at how businesses’ and regulators’ choices—in this case, the decision to keep lead in gasoline and paint—end up shaping society in ways that few expect. I’m not entirely sure that lead explains the entire drop in crime we’ve seen in cities across America. But Drum has certainly convinced me that getting lead out of the environment is one of the best, and most cost-effective, social interventions that regulators can make.

Thanks, James! More here for those who want to dive into some of the other reaction to the lead-crime story, as well as a few items that got left on the cutting room floor.

Secular Ethics Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You Very Much

| Sun Dec. 22, 2013 1:16 PM EST

Ross Douthat writes that there are three spiritual worldviews in America today. You might call them hard-core biblical, soft-core spiritual, and secular. Unsurprisingly, he's bearish on the secular worldview:

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher....So there are two interesting religious questions....The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

I'm willing to concede Douthat's main point: the secular scientific worldview doesn't provide much of a philosophical basis for a moral system. I don't think it's quite as barren of metaphysical guidance as he suggests, but still, he has a point.

But here's what I've never understood about the kind of argument Douthat is making: it's not as if secular ethics is a modern invention. Aristotle's ethics were fundamentally secular, and were appropriated by the Church only long after his death. More recently, we have the example of plenty of modern, secular states in Europe and elsewhere, which appear to effortlessly practice an ethics every bit as praiseworthy as that of more religious states. On a personal level, there's never been the slightest evidence that religious believers behave any better on average than the nonreligious.

None of this is new. Sure, in some abstract way, it's not possible for me to justify my own sense of ethics all the way down to its ultimate core, but in real life that's something I never even think about. In a practical, human sense, my sense of morality is every bit as strong as Douthat's. He might attribute this to God and I might attribute it to the evolution of the human brain and human society, but either way there's no inherent tension in the secular view simply because it lacks an ultimate metaphysical justification. It's just not something that affects most of us even slightly. Douthat is imagining cracks that aren't there.

At a broader level, you might still wonder whether religious underpinnings for morality are more effective at producing an ethical society. Again, though, where's the evidence? You can enforce morality by threatening people with hellfire, or you can enforce it by threatening them with jail time. Both work pretty well—though I'd note that religious societies tend to partake liberally of secular punishments too. Hellfire apparently has its limits.

Secular ethics isn't some newfangled 20th-century experiment that's falling apart at the seams and must inevitably be replaced with a deist revival or the return of Pol Pot. It's millennia old, and doing just fine. It's true that sex and gender roles have changed dramatically over the past century, and that's certainly produced plenty of tension and discomfort along the way. And for all too many devout Christians, that seems to be the real wellspring of their discontent: not secularism per se, but changing sexual mores in particular, which produces a foreboding sense that society is inevitably sinking into moral degeneracy. Christian apologists would do well to keep the two subjects separate.

NSA Paid Security Company to Adopt Weakened Encryption Standards

| Sat Dec. 21, 2013 9:49 PM EST

A few months ago, we learned via the Snowden leaks that the NSA had been busily at work trying to undermine public cryptography standards. One in particular was a random number generator used for creating encryption keys in RSA's BSafe software. But Reuters reports there's more to the story:

Undisclosed until now was that RSA received $10 million in a deal that set the NSA formula as the preferred, or default, method for number generation in the BSafe software, according to two sources familiar with the contract. Although that sum might seem paltry, it represented more than a third of the revenue that the relevant division at RSA had taken in during the entire previous year, securities filings show.

....Most of the dozen current and former RSA employees interviewed said that the company erred in agreeing to such a contract, and many cited RSA's corporate evolution away from pure cryptography products as one of the reasons it occurred.

But several said that RSA also was misled by government officials, who portrayed the formula as a secure technological advance. "They did not show their true hand," one person briefed on the deal said of the NSA, asserting that government officials did not let on that they knew how to break the encryption.

Well, look. There are a very limited number of reasons that the NSA would be so eager for you to use their encryption software that they'd be willing to pay you $10 million to do it. Surely someone at RSA must have had some inkling of what was going on.

Probably more than an inkling, if I had to guess. But this certainly goes to show just how serious and relentless the NSA has been about crippling the public use of cryptography. The president's surveillance commission recommended on Friday that this stop, and since trustworthy encryption is critical to trust in the internet as a whole, it would sure be nice if President Obama put a stop to this.