The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is just an endless horror show for Republicans. Obama's approval is up; Republican Party approval is down; confidence in the economic recovery has plummeted thanks to the budget standoff; and voters blame Republicans for the government shutdown by a margin of 53-31. Virtually everyone who's not a hardcore dittohead blames the GOP. What's more, 73 percent of the public thinks the shutdown is a serious problem and 31 percent have been personally affected.

But none of that is a big surprise. Here's something that is: After a week of 24/7 media coverage about the problems with the rollout of Obamacare, its popularity has gone up. It's still not doing gangbusters or anything, but it's pretty interesting that an awful lot of people who previously had no opinion are now feeling pretty positive about it. Is this because they or someone they know has actually gone on line and discovered that there are pretty good deals available? I don't know. But something has changed their minds.

It's time for a pool. There are currently 46 Republicans in the Senate. How many of them do you think will vote to confirm Janet Yellen as chairman of the Fed? Keep in mind that there isn't even a ghost of a reason to vote against her.

I'll go with 13. Not for any particular reason. Just because. Leave your guess in comments.

A cow lies frozen to death following last weekend's "historic" blizzard in South Dakota.

Last Wednesday, the weather was sunny and warm at Bob Fortune's cattle ranch in Belvidere, S.D. On Thursday, it started raining. By Friday night, the rain had turned to snow. By the weekend, the snow turned to a blizzard with 60 mile an hour winds. By the weekend, Fortune says, "the cattle just couldn't stand the cold anymore, and they just started dying."

Only a year after sweeping drought left ranchers across South Dakota desperate for feed, this week they're just beginning to reckon with a freak early snowstorm, dubbed Winter Storm Atlas, that wiped out an estimated 10 percent of the cattle in the state's western region, up to 100,000 animals. In the coming weeks they will dig through the mess to try to tally the damage to an industry worth $5.2 billion statewide, that also killed an unknown number of horses, sheep, and wildlife. Fortune, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, says losses like this would be enough to cripple many ranchers even in the best of times, especially with the loss of future calves next spring whose would-be mothers were killed. But with the federal Department of Agriculture still shut down, ranchers are cut off from the livestock insurance that would normally keep them afloat following a disaster like this.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

"We have no idea if there'll be federal aid for these ranchers," Fortune says.

After catastrophes, livestock producers typically turn to the federal Farm Service Agency's livestock indemnity program, which offers compensation for lost cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other livestock. As long as the government stays shut, FSA offices nationwide will be shut too, leaving ranchers without support. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Agriculture said the most their office can do is offer advice on how to document and carry out a cleanup effort. Even before the shutdown, the insurance program was already threatened by delayed passage of a new federal farm bill, which allots money for a range of food and ag-related programs from food stamps to incentives to go organic. While the shutdown debate rages, the Senate and House are still hashing out the farm bill, leaving the livestock indemnity program in midair.

The weekend blizzard, which dumped up to five feet of snow in some places, was "very historic," according to meteorologist Darren Clabo at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology's Institute of Atmospheric Sciences. Rapid City, the largest city in the state's western half, received the most snowfall ever recorded in October, and the third-highest one-day snowfall for any time of year. While South Dakota residents and ranchers are accustomed to brutal winters, Clabo said, "we don't get these kinds of storms in the first week of October." That means that cattle were still covered in thin summer coats, and left out in exposed summer pastures.

historic frozen cow
A snow-covered steer in South Dakota after a blizzard in 1966. Ranchers are still reeling from this weekend's blizzard. NOAA

The storm, Clabo said, was the result of a strong high-altitude storm that pushed in quickly from the Pacific, gathered energy over the Rockies, and peaked just over Rapid City. While it's too early to say what role climate change might have played in this particular storm, higher levels of heat trapped in the atmosphere can result in more frequent and severe storms. Last month's IPCC report found it "very likely" that extreme precipitation events like blizzards will increase over this century.

For now, the South Dakota state Department of Agriculture is picking up the slack as best it can, urging ranchers to fully document their losses so they can get aid if and when it reappears, said spokesperson Jamie Crew. Meanwhile, Fortune and his peers will continue to dispose of dead livestock, which state law requires be cleaned up within 36 hours for public health reasons. 

"The more snow melts," he says, "the more dead cattle they're finding."

Like everyone, I guess, I'm having trouble keeping track of what's really going on today. My best reading of the tea leaves is that John Boehner plans to offer President Obama a clean 6-week debt ceiling extension in exchange for a willingness to negotiate over the budget. Or something. Maybe there will actually be some strings attached. It's hard to tell.

But it's hard to fathom the point of a 6-week extension even if it comes without formal strings attached. The fact that Republicans are insisting that Obama negotiate with a debt ceiling breach looming over him is a tacit admission that the debt ceiling is still being used as a threat. Right? Or am I missing something here?

I suppose Obama would have to sign a clean extension regardless. And he probably should. And who knows? Anything can happen in six weeks. But it's a little hard to see that this accomplishes anything except to guarantee a Thanksgiving hostage crisis instead of a Halloween hostage crisis.

Dan Drezner is skeptical about the role of "credibility" in international relations—for example, the proposition that what happens in Syria now has a big impact on what happens in Iran a year from now. Despite this, he believes credibility does matter in domestic politics:

The importance of credibility gets magnified even further when appreciating that [the] same individuals are going to have to go to the bargaining table again and again and again over the next few years. It is in precisely this set of circumstances — in which the bargaining is ongoing and the individual actors don't change — that one would expect credibility and a reputation for tough bargaining to be pretty friggin' important (though I'd really, really like to hear from my American politics colleagues on this question).

I agree, though I'd put it slightly differently. In foreign affairs, it's very seldom that you see identical scenarios unfold over and over. Everyone accepts that the United States has certain interests, and it's not hard to recognize that our interests in Syria are somewhat different than they are in Iran. Thus, the fact that we changed course on bombing Syria over a very specific violation of international norms regarding chemical weapons says very little about how we'd eventually react to Iran building a nuclear bomb. Sure, they both involve WMDs in some way, but the similarity ends there. Syrian chemical weapons simply aren't a big priority for America. Iranian nuclear bombs are. Everyone knows this.

The case of the debt ceiling is precisely the opposite. It's the exact same scenario every time. If President Obama granted concessions in 2011—which he did—and then grants concessions in 2013 under the exact same conditions, his credibility is unquestionably shredded. There's simply no doubt that he'll grant concessions every single time we get close to reaching the debt ceiling. In this case, it really is all or nothing. Obama either has credibility on the debt ceiling or he doesn't. If he concedes anything at all, his credibility is gone.

Similar situations are very uncommon in international relations. Situations separated in time are almost always different enough that it's hard to draw any firm conclusions about patterns of behavior, which is why it takes a very long time for credibility to be either established or lost. In domestic affairs, there's no such fuzziness.

I've gotten a bunch of email and comments regarding my post earlier this morning that criticized Jack Lew's vagueness about how Treasury would deal with a debt ceiling breach. Instead of adding an update to the post, I want to create a whole new one to address them. I think it's important. Here's a sampling from the comment thread:

TLM: Of course they have a plan. But telegraphing that plan is a no-win exercise on multiple levels.

histprof1: Why would any functional person give the GOP anything to work with at this point?....I suspect that he has a plan and has his rationale ready. I also suspect that he will let the politics work until past the last minute before he goes legal. In fact, I suspect that his first executive action after the GOP fails to raise the limit will be aimed at making them try again. After that, he goes into emergency powers territory and the checks and balances fun begins.

Jasper_in_Boston: What's so hard to understand, Kevin? Default would quite possibly be catastrophic, and Lew (and Obama) quite understandably don't want to give the forces of nihilism any reason to think we can get through it easily.

gyrfalcon: Bingo, bingo, bingo. The GOPers have already glommed onto the idea that we can pay off bonds from incoming revenues, and many of them are positively gleeful at the idea of having the government stiff everybody else, including SS and veterans' benefits, thinking it will look to the public like Obama's doing....It flat-out isn't possible to discuss this honestly with this pack of denialists and nihilists. The admin's only possible strategy is to keep it as vague as possible.

This is the conventional wisdom, and believe me: I get it. But I think it's dead wrong. The assumption here is that (a) the alarm level needs to be kept at maximum, and (b) no one will ever find out if Lew was being truthful because the debt ceiling will eventually get raised.

Maybe. But that's a pretty dangerous assumption at this point. And if we do breach the debt ceiling, and it turns out that prioritization was in the pipeline all along, and Social Security checks were never in danger, and Treasury can in fact choose which bills to pay—in other words, if the alarms turn out to have been overblown—then there's going to be hell to pay. Republicans will be more convinced than ever that they can't trust anything Lew or Obama says, and they'll become even more instransigent about the debt ceiling. In other words, genuine disaster becomes even more likely.

Like it or not, my view is that Lew needs to be rigorously, meticulously honest. He absolutely can't afford to say anything that might turn out not to be true, or that might eventually be seen as politicization or game playing. That includes making vague statements that later turn out to be deceptive because, in fact, plans were in place and he knew it.

Is it possible that being truthful will persuade some of the nutballs that the debt ceiling isn't actually a big deal? Sure. But they already think that. So who cares? The real audience for Lew's testimony is the folks who are conservative but not crazy. They're on the edge already, but if they start to get an inkling that Lew is scaremongering in even the smallest way, they could turn against him.

I understand the arguments about how dangerous it is to run the risk of making a debt ceiling breach seem manageable. But I think it's a lot more dangerous to be caught making even modestly deceptive statements "for the greater good." My earlier post wasn't written just because I'm personally curious about what Treasury's plans are. It was written because I think Lew is playing with fire.

UPDATE: Just as I finish writing that a debt ceiling increase is a "dangerous assumption," we start getting reports from Capitol Hill that Republicans are getting ready to pass a short-term debt ceiling increase. Only for a few weeks, though. Stay tuned.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, in terms of GDP. But which country is the richest in terms of median wealth per person? Australia. The median wealth of adults there is $219,505, according to the Credit Suisse 2013 Global Wealth Report, which was released on Wednesday. In the US, the median wealth is only $45,000, compared to an average wealth per person of more than $250,000. Here are some other chart-tastic findings from the report.

Global wealth reached an all-time high of $241 trillion, up about five percent since last year. If all the money in the world were spread out evenly, it would amount to $51,600 per person. And here is a map of what it would look like if countries' GDP were spread out evenly among their populations.

Global inequality remains high. The richest 10 percent of people in the world hold 86 percent of the world's wealth—with just 0.7 percent owning 41 percent of global riches. Meanwhile, the bottom half of adults own one percent of the world's wealth, with more than two thirds of people worth less than $10,000:

Here's what the tip top of that pyramid looks like. About 10,000 people have more than $50 million:

About half of those people live in the US:

Here is the percentage of millionaires by country:

Over the past year, the US made greater gains in wealth than any other country. Meanwhile, we have persistent record levels of poverty and stagnant wages.

Jonathan Strong says I should read Tim Alberta's latest piece in National Journal, so I did. And I'm mystified:

In interviews with numerous GOP lawmakers, members spoke with confidence — and acceptance — of the fact that the House will soon approve a short-term deal to raise the debt-ceiling and force Democrats to the negotiating table. Details are still being ironed out, House Republicans said, but they are on track to approve a debt-limit extension — lasting between four and six weeks — that would establish a framework for subsequent fiscal negotiations.

....The particulars of this short-term proposal are in flux, as there are ongoing discussions within the conference regarding which provisions — if any — should be attached. Some members are pushing for commensurate spending cuts, though such a figure could be difficult to calculate. Others are advocating the inclusion of one, or multiple, mini-funding bills that have been passed through the House. A clutch of conservatives, meanwhile, are asking for language that would prioritize Treasury payments.

Am I missing something? The one thing President Obama has said he won't do is negotiate over a debt ceiling increase. So what do these guys do? Propose a 4-week debt ceiling increase with a bunch of conditions attached.

If I'm reading Alberta's piece correctly, Republicans seem to think that a debt ceiling increase with conditions attached would be OK with Obama because it's not actually a negotiation. They're just telling him what he has to do. So, you know, he could sign it and then start negotiating. Or something.

Either (a) Alberta is reporting this wrong, (b) I'm reading it wrong, or (c) Republicans are even more divorced from reality than I thought. Take your pick.

Marines assigned to Force Reconnaissance Platoon, Maritime Raid Force, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, conduct military freefall parachute operations from UH-60 Black Hawks, Sept. 5, 2013. The 26th MEU is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force forward-deployed to the US 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, serving as a sea-based, expeditionary crisis response force. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone/Released.

From Jack Lew's congressional testimony this morning:

In testimony before the committee, Mr. Lew stressed that the Treasury Department would run out of “extraordinary measures” to free up cash in a matter of days. At that point, the country’s bills might overwhelm its cash on hand plus any receipts from taxes or other sources, leading to an unprecedented default. Mr. Lew said that Treasury had no workarounds to avoid breaching the debt ceiling. “There is no plan other than raising the debt limit,” he said. “The legal issues, even regarding interest and principal on the debt, are complicated.”

He also said prioritizing payments to bondholders or others might not be workable, adding that the Treasury would face significant technical issues in trying to rejigger its complicated automated payment systems to pay certain bills but not others. “Our systems were not designed to not pay our bills,” he said.

Some market participants have suggested that Treasury might simply pull the plug on one or more of its payments systems to prevent money from going out, perhaps telling the recipients of that money that it would pay them when possible. But “I don’t believe there is a way to pick and choose,” except on a broad basis, Mr. Lew said.

I just don't get this. Maybe this is the best Lew can do, but given all the time he's had to study this, and the fact that we're only a week or two away from D-Day, how is it that he doesn't know (a) how close we are to running out of money, (b) whether prioritization is possible, and (c) if Treasury's computer systems allow it to choose which bills to pay.

I'm not a nutball Republican denier, but even I don't believe this. It's October 10. This is our second go-around with a debt ceiling crisis. We've been planning for this one for more than six months. Is it really plausible that Lew still doesn't know if prioritization is possible? Is it really plausible that there's still no plan in place? Is there some reason he isn't telling Congress what that is?

Something doesn't add up here.