2013...mewhat-popular - %2

The Name is Bond. Premium Bond.

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

I have to give Matt Levine credit for finally promoting a genuinely interesting theory about how to overcome the debt ceiling follies. No platinum coins, no dubious constitutional workarounds, just a simple new kind of treasury bond, which he calls a premium bond.

It's simple. When an old $1,000 bond matures, replace with another $1,000 bond that sells for $2,000. That provides the government with an extra thousand dollars. And why would anyone buy it? Because the interest rate would be really high, around 20-30 percent or so. Unless I'm missing something, this would be unquestionably legal; the math works out fine for investors; and it provides the federal government with lots of extra money.

Now, as Matt Yglesias points out, whether they're legal or not, issuing these bonds would almost certainly set off "an avalanche of litigation and uncertainty" about their status. And that might scare off investors. And as Levine points out, this is still banana republic terroritory, but "as lunatic schemes go, it gives off less of a banana-republic-from-outer-space whiff than the platinum coin does." In other words, in the real world it's not going to happen.

Why write about it then? Just because it's an impressive display of human ingenuity and flexibility. It's amazing the ideas we can collectively come up with once there's a gun to our heads and we have to.

UPDATE: Since this isn't going to happen, it probably doesn't bear too much scrutiny, but as I was eating breakfast I got to wondering about the "unquestionably legal" part of this. If you sell it for $2,000, does that mean it's a $2,000 debt no matter what denomination you put on the bond itself? I'm not sure! Perhaps some lawyers with idle time on their hands will weigh in on this.

UPDATE 2: A reader emails:

The amount of debt represented by any bond is the amount the bond promises to pay back, regardless of the purchase price. If the bond promises to pay $1000 at maturity, it’s $1000 of debt regardless of whether it sells for $1 or $100,000. In addition, the debt limit statute doesn’t affect the interest rate, which floats independently of the principal. The “premium bond” idea is unquestionably cockamamie, but it has no whiff of illegality about it.

Huh. Well, maybe so. I wonder what a judge would say? In any case, if this is really how it works, why even bother with the $1,000 face value? Why not issue a one mil bond that pays out a million percent interest (or whatever) and sells for $10,000? In other words, basically a guaranteed coupon with essentially no value at maturity at all. That would put the debt ceiling out of business for good.

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Alaska's Supreme Court Will Rule on This College Freshman's Global Warming Lawsuit

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 11:29 AM EDT

Many college students consider it an accomplishment if they beat their hangovers and make it to class on time. But last year, Nelson Kanuk, a freshman at at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, sued his state for failing to reduce carbon emissions or slow climate change. Last week, the Alaska Supreme Court agreed to hear Kanuk's appeal, becoming the first high court in the country to take up such a case. (You can view the full hearing, which took place in a high school auditorium, here.)

Kanuk hails from a remote Yup'ik Eskimo village called Kipnuk, which is accessible primarily via river. Due to melting permafrost, the riverbank that protects Kanuk's family's house from floods softened, and some 13 feet of their front yard was swallowed up by the rushing water. The family has since been forced to move about 100 miles away.

"[My village] is not really connected to the outside world, but I was always interested in what's going on all around us, I was curious in climate change and how it was affecting us," Kanuk says in a video put out by the environmental group helping with the lawsuit, Our Children's Trust. "I didn't realize how bad it was. When I finally understood what climate change was, I thought, what can I do to help?"

Kanuk's legal argument hinges on what's called the "public trust doctrine" which holds that there are natural resources (like lakes, or places where the states issues hunting permits) that can't be subject to private ownership, and as a consequence, states have a responsibility to protect them so that they can be enjoyed by future generations. Kanuk and his six co-plaintiffs claim that the atmosphere falls under this doctrine, and although the air hasn't been "threatened" before, "throughout history, law has evolved as courts respond to unforeseen, often urgent, circumstances."

Kanuk isn't the first person to bring a climate change lawsuit against a state—or even the first teenager. Lawsuits are also pending in 12 other states, including Montana, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and also in federal court. The environmental group working with Kanuk, Our Children's Trust, has been helping teens bring many of these lawsuits, and in Kansas, the plaintiff was only 14. But so far, only a trial court in Texas has backed the plaintiffs and the case is now facing appeal, according to Alaska Public Media. A decision in Kanuk's case is expected in a few months.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 9, 2013

Wed Oct. 9, 2013 11:03 AM EDT

Maj. Anthony Evanego, from Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Farah's Civil Affairs inspects the water output of a diesel powered water pump during a Key Leader Engagement to the Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (DAIL) to discuss a replacement solar power water pump project. PRT Farah's Mission is to train, advise and assist Afghan government leaders at the municipal, district and provincial levels in Farah province, Afghanistan. US Navy photo by Lt. Chad A. Dulac/ Released.

The 6 Dumbest Government Shutdown Myths

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

The government shutdown is awful. It's awful in a lot of different ways—to kids with cancer, to firefighters, to domestic violence centers, to goats. Another way in which this awful manifests itself is through a parade of misinformation and bad memes about what's going on during this impasse. Here are six of the dumbest myths you've probably heard about the government shutdown: 

1. Obama closed the ocean.
On Saturday, Breitbart's Mike Flynn posted a piece, titled "Feds Try to Close the Ocean Because of Shutdown", that reads, "before the weekend, the National Park Service informed charter boat captains in Florida that the Florida Bay was 'closed' due to the shutdown." A bunch of people started tweeting about how Obama had shut down the ocean, including this Republican congressman from Arizona:

And on Monday, Fox News' Megyn Kelly had the cast of Fox's The Five on her new show to talk about what Miley Cyrus looks like when she twerks, but also about Obama closing the ocean.

Barack Obama did not close the ocean. Officials are indeed restricting access (fishing, for instance) to Florida Bay, a body of water that's part of a national park. Florida Bay encompasses roughly a half million acres, but exceptions are being made for transit, access for emergencies, and access for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to monitor the population of algae. "[I]t's an exaggeration to state that Obama has tried to shut down the entire ocean—or even to suggest that he has shuttered the Atlantic Ocean or all of the waters in the Keys," PolitiFact.com concludes. "Tourists and locals can continue to fish, swim and play in the ocean, even in the Keys."

2. Obama is personally paying to keep a Muslim culture museum open.
During the weekend edition of Fox & Friends, cohost Anna Kooiman claimed that President Obama offered to pay "out of his own pocket" to keep the International Museum of Muslim Cultures open during the shutdown—while refusing to allow World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, DC. Here's the clip:

This would be outrageous and bizarre—if the claim weren't based on a piece published on a satirical website. Kooiman later apologized on Twitter, and Fox is set to issue an on-air correction this Saturday.

3. Obama shut down the Amber Alert program.
Conservative bloggers were appalled this week to find that the federal government nixed Amber Alerts during the shutdown. Though the website was down briefly, the program itself was never shuttered. Also, the child abduction alert system is actually a state-based program, two alerts went out during the shutdown, and the website is now back up and running. So that's that.

4. NASA won't tell you about world-ending asteroids because #shutdown.

This one tweet kicked off a swirl of speculation and bad headlines about how NASA's asteroid detection staff had been axed—even though the Asteroid Watch Twitter feed clarified that many observatories and astronomers would continue to monitor the skies. Ninety-seven percent of NASA staff was furloughed, and government social-media accounts took hits across the board. But there's no reason to think that government officials wouldn't be able to tell America that a Ben Affleck movie was becoming terrifying reality just because they aren't currently allowed to do it on Twitter.

5. Priests are being threatened with arrest.
"In a stunning development, some military priests are facing arrest if they celebrate mass or practice their faith on military bases during the federal government shutdown," the Daily Caller reported on Friday, with the provocative headline, "Priests threatened with arrest if they minister to military during shutdown." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted the story, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor responded:

The Caller story was picked up by various right-winger pundits and bloggers, including Fox News radio host Todd Starnes, who interpreted this as yet another one of Obama's attacks on religious freedom. This all quickly morphed into the meme that Obama was threatening military chaplains and priests with jail time. This simply isn't the case, and the Obama administration has yet to initiate any kind of crackdown on Catholic priests. On Saturday, the House passed a measure allowing military chaplains to lead Sunday mass without fear of penalty. The Senate has yet to take up the bill.

6. Shutdowns are "normal."
On a recent episode of CNN's Crossfire, cohost Newt Gingrich (who, as former speaker of the House, led Republicans during the last big shutdown) claimed that shutdown-related hysteria was overblown. "There is an amazing amount of hysteria and vitriol over what is a normal part of the constitutional process," Gingrich said on September 30. "The government shut down 12 times under Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill. It was only shut down twice while I was speaker."

The stated number of shutdowns under O'Neill is misleading, given that they were very short and that nearly half of them weren't technically government shutdowns. Of the seven genuine shutdowns of the O'Neill era, the longest lasted three days, and the cumulative duration of all seven was 13 days—half the combined length of Gingrich's two shutdowns (26 days). Via PolitiFact:

In addition, three of those happened primarily on weekends, further minimizing their impact.

A one-day shutdown in October 1982, the Washington Post recently noted, stemmed from a particularly innocuous reason: Congress delayed a session because President Reagan had invited lawmakers to a White House barbecue, and Democrats were holding a $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner. The funding question was resolved the next day.

For more nuance, click here.

40 Percent of Your Chicken Nugget Is Meat. The Rest Is...

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Marketing isn't about giving people what they want; it's about convincing people to want what you've got—that is, what you can buy cheap, spiff up, and sell at a profit. Take the chicken nugget, that staple of fast-food outlets and school lunches.

The implicit marketing pitch goes something like this: "You like fried chicken, right? How about some bite-sized fried chicken chunks, without the messy bones?" When most people think of eating chicken, they think of, say, biting into a drumstick. What they get when they do so is a mouthful of muscle—popularly known as meat.

What people are actually getting from chicken nuggets is a bit different, according to a new study by University of Mississippi medical researchers. (Abstract here; I have access to the full paper but can't upload it for copyright reasons.) They bought an order of chicken nuggets from two (unnamed) fast-food chains, plucked a nugget from each, broke them down, and analyzed them in a lab.

Obamacare Isn't the First Program to Have Opening Day Headaches

| Wed Oct. 9, 2013 1:11 AM EDT

It's easy to get alarmed about the widely-reported problems with the Obamacare website. People can't log in; can't create accounts; and have to endure crashes and software failures once they do finally get on. It's a mess. And it's an embarrassing mess.

At the same time, it's easy to overreact. Today, Stephanie Mencimer reminds us of what it was like during the early days of the Massachusetts program that served as a template for Obamacare:

After the law went into effect in Massachusetts, state offices were totally overwhelmed by the number of people clamoring to sign up for insurance, or what the state's Medicaid director dubbed the "stress of success." Lost paperwork, computer glitches, confusion over who was eligible for what, and not enough staff to handle the workload meant that in those early days, consumers could wait several months after submitting an application to finally get coverage....In the first two months, only 18,000 of more than 200,000 potentially eligible people had successfully signed up through the connector, according to Jonathan Gruber, an MIT professor who helped design the Massachusetts system and served on the Connector board.

....But guess what? Eventually the kinks got worked out and people got covered. Enrollment opened in October 2006, and by the deadline for getting mandatory coverage, July 1, 2007, the Boston Globe reported, 20,000 more people had signed up for insurance on the exchange than the state had expected—12,000 of them in just the two weeks before the deadline. Total enrollment went from 18,000 in December 2006 to 158,000 a year later, says Gruber.

Read the whole thing for more. None of this means that we should be dismissive about the technical problems with the exchanges. At the same time, most of the state programs are already working pretty well, and the federal program is slowly but surely getting better. There's still plenty of time to sign up; phone banks are accessible in addition to the website; and the navigator program is just starting to get underway. Within a few weeks, things will be working tolerably well and people will begin signing up in large numbers. By January 1, we'll likely have millions of satisfied customers signed up via the exchanges, and the early hiccups will be forgotten.

And look at the bright side: for all of Obamacare's problems, it's already working better than Congress. And unlike Congress, it's almost certain to get better.

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Football's Concussion Problem, in 3 Terrifying Pictures

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 8:15 PM EDT

Brain tissue images, with tau protein in brown. The brain on the left is from a normal subject, the brain in the middle is from a former football player, and the brain on the right is from a former boxer.

League of Denial, a PBS Frontline documentary about the NFL's response (or lack thereof) to concussions and long-term brain injuries among its players, airs tonight. The investigation attempts to hash out what the league really knew about player safety while it downplayed the ill effects the sport has on its athletes. But what exactly are those effects, and what about them made thousands of former players sue the NFL over their injuries?

While the symptoms of a concussion—dizziness, vomiting, memory loss—can be felt immediately, the long-term impacts of repeated brain trauma have been harder to study. Research points to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, as one of the major outcomes. CTE is caused by a buildup of tau, a protein that strangles brain cells and degenerates brain tissue, which is caused by repetitive brain trauma like the hits football players endure. This leads to depression, increased aggression, lack of impulse control, and eventually dementia, which may not manifest until years or even decades after the brain injuries took place. While CTE can only be definitively identified after a patient dies, a pilot study at the University of California-Los Angeles earlier this year found evidence of tau in five living former NFL players.

Evidence of CTE was found in former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year. Seau's son and ex-wife said he had become prone to uncharacteristic mood swings, forgetfulness, and depression. Two other former players—Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling—were also found to have CTE after committing suicide. The condition is not limited to retired players (Cincinatti Bengals receiver Chris Henry was the first active NFL player to have died with trauma-induced brain damage) or even to professionals (the disease was also found in a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman who committed suicide in 2010).

Repeated brain injuries are also linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. A 2009 study commissioned by the NFL found that former NFL players had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems 19 times more than the normal rate for men between the ages of 30 and 49. The NFL went on to back away from those findings, though, even as it changed game rules to avoid more dangerous hits and donated money for more brain injury research.

These revelations led to a lawsuit against the NFL that eventually counted more than 4,500 former players among its plaintiffs. In August, the league reached a settlement, agreeing to pay $765 million to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, medical research for retired NFL players and their families, and litigation expenses. The lawsuit never reached the discovery phase, meaning the NFL never had to reveal what it did or didn't know about concussions and long-term health effects on players. According to Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada's upcoming book, also titled League of Denial, NFL officials cherry-picked sponsored research, pushed influential medical journal Neurosurgery to publish its work, and antagonized independent researchers who spoke with reporters about the link between football and CTE.

Hundreds of millions of dollars won't make football-related brain injuries—or the NFL's PR headache—go away. Four more former players sued the league and helmet maker Riddell for allegedly hiding information about the dangers of playing. Increased pressure like that, combined with the Fainaru brothers' book and the Frontline documentary, could lead to bigger changes in the NFL, which would likely trickle down to the college, high school, and even Pee Wee levels. The way Americans view their favorite sport is changing, but it remains to be seen whether the sport will change to match.

Why Are We Talking About the Debt Ceiling Crisis As If It's Normal Politics?

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 6:48 PM EDT

I was noodling over Obama's debt ceiling press conference during lunch, and the thing that struck me—again—was how hard it is to truly communicate his postion. And I sympathize. I've written about the basics of the debt ceiling hostage crisis at least a dozen times, and I still don't feel like I've ever been able to get across just how radical the whole thing is.

Except for Newt Gingrich in 1995, no one has ever shut down the government as a threat to get something they want. And except for John Boehner in 2011, nobody has ever threatened to breach the debt ceiling as leverage to get something they want. That's because it's basically nuclear chicken, threatening to destroy the economy unless you get your way. It's unthinkable.

And yet, it's now become so institutionalized that Republicans can repeat over and over their mantra that "President Obama refuses to negotiate," and eventually it starts to get some traction. Reporters who should know better write columns suggesting that Obama should try to bargain his way out of this. Conservative pundits complain not about the hostage taking itself, but about the fact that Republicans should be sure to choose the superior—i.e., most damaging— hostage-taking opportunity available. And Obama is forced to take the stage and try out an extended series of metaphors to explain exactly what's going on. And then we all sit around and analyze his speech and nitpick his metaphors and game out how this might end.

It's crazy. How do you get across how insurrectionary this is? Raising the debt ceiling isn't a concession from Republicans that deserves a corresponding concession from Democrats. It's the financial equivalent of a nuclear bomb: both sides will go up in smoke if it's triggered. Ditto for the government shutdown. And ditto again for the piecemeal spending bills, which are basically a way for Republicans to fund only the parts of government they like but not anything else.

You can't govern a country this way. You can't allow a minority party to make relentless demands not through the political system, but by threatening Armageddon if they don't get what they want. It's not what the Constitution intended; it's not something any president could countenance; and it's reckless almost beyond imagining.

And most important of all, it's not something that should get written about as if it's just a modest escalation of normal political disagreements. It's not normal. At all. But how do you get this across? How do you get across just how non-normal it is that we're even talking about it?

Quote of the Day: $3.5 Million Is Chickenfeed

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 6:03 PM EDT

From Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:

I don't think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money.

This remark came in the context of oral arguments over campaign finance limits. Scalia's position seems to be that since there's a ton of money already flooding our political campaigns, there's not much reason not to allow even vaster sums to sluice through the system. I guess you have to be a constitutional scholar to understand this logic.

Nebraska Court Decides 16-Year-Old Is Too Immature for an Abortion, But Motherhood's Okay

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 4:14 PM EDT

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on Friday that a 16-year-old could not get the abortion she wanted because she "was not mature enough to make the decision herself." The Court's ability to force the teen, a ward of the state known only as Anonymous 5, to carry her unwanted child to term is a direct result of the state's 2011 parental consent law that requires minors seeking an abortion to get parental approval.

But Nebraska is not unique: similar rulings could happen in most other states across the country. Laws that mandate parental involvement in teens' abortions offer anti-choice judges new opportunities to limit abortion access. And while it is unclear whether such parental involvement legislation affects minors' abortion rates in general, Sharon Camp, former president and CEO of Guttmacher Institute, wrote in an article for RH Reality Check that such mandates can put teens at risk of physical violence or abuse and "result in teens' delaying abortions until later in pregnancy, when they carry a greater risk of complications and are also more expensive to obtain." The case of the Nebraska teen also shows that parental involvement legislation overlooks wards of the state, leaving pregnant young adults who have no legal parents at the behest of the court system.

Here's a map of parental consent laws across the United States:

According to Guttmacher, "only two states and the District of Columbia explicitly allow" all minors to consent to their own abortions. On the other hand, a whopping 39 states require some kind of parental involvement in a minor's decision to have an abortion.

There are two major types of legislation mandating parental involvement in their child's decision to have an abortion: Parental consent and parental notification laws. Parental consent laws mandate that a minor who has decided to get an abortion first get the OK from either one or both of her parents (or her legal guardian). Parental notification laws, on the other hand, require that a parent or legal guardian be notified of a child's decision to get an abortion, either by the minor herself or by her doctor. Eight states, including Nebraska, mandate a notarized statement of consent from a parent before the abortion is performed. And in Arkansas, the Governor recently signed a law making it a crime to assist a minor in obtaining an abortion without her parent's consent, "even if the abortion was performed in a state where parental consent is not required."

Almost all states with parental involvement laws include some exceptions to the rules. Many states allow exceptions in medical emergencies or in cases of abuse, assault, incest, or neglect. Only a handful of states extend their consent or notification laws to other adult relatives, like grandparents.

But one exception in particular has increased the role of the courts in the personal decision-making of teens. As a result of a Supreme Court ruling that parents cannot have complete veto power in determining whether their child gets an abortion, almost all states offer a "judicial bypass" to their parental involvement laws. The bypass allows minors to go to the courts to waive their state's involvement laws; but in effect moves the power to veto a teen's abortion from her family to the courts.

And here is where the Nebraska case comes in. In this case, the biological parents of Anonymous 5 had previously been stripped of their legal parental rights after physically abusing their daughter and, as a result, the pregnant teen had no legal parents and was instead a ward of the state. With no parent to consent to her abortion, she was forced to ask permission from the courts, who then denied her request, essentially finding her mature enough to carry a baby she doesn't want but too immature to consent to her own abortion. Instead of offering an alternative to parental consent, the courts serve as just another barrier between teens—especially wards of the state—and access to safe abortion services.