2013...mewhat-popular - %2

Obama Talks About the Debt Ceiling

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 3:22 PM EDT

President Obama has been holding forth on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown for over an hour now, and you can't fault him for his ability to stay on message. He's been clearer than usual, and less stuttery than usual, and he's repeated his basic position over and over and over: I'll negotiate about anything, but not as ransom to prevent economic chaos. Democrats have asked Republicans for budget meetings 19 times over the past six months, and they've refused because they wanted to wait until they could use threats to get what they wanted. That's unacceptable. Unilateral threats to burn down the country are unacceptable. But take the threats off the table, and then we can talk.

Will it work? I don't know. I'll leave the detailed commentary to others. But I did like it when Obama told one reporter (I forget which one) "You know they've been planning to use threats to get their way for months. You've been reporting on it." It's true. Reporters know perfectly well how this all happened. It's not as if Republicans have made any secret of their plans, after all.

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Investors Are Getting Ever More Nervous About a Treasury Default

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 3:01 PM EDT

Last week I linked to a report showing a sharp increase in rates for treasury bonds that mature in late October. This is a signal that markets are starting to get genuinely nervous about the possibility of delayed payment on these notes. Today, Neil Irwin passes along the latest on this. As the chart on the right shows, the rates on short-term bills have hovered right around zero percent for all of September. Then, starting October 1, rates started to rise. In the past 48 hours, they've spiked enormously:

There are reports, including this one from Reuters, indicating that some of the biggest money managers in the world are starting to avoid U.S. government debt that matures in the near future out of fear they will not be repaid promptly. Bond investors seem to be confident that the U.S. government will make good on its obligations in the longer term --securities that mature a year or more from now are actually seeing their rates fall. But they are becoming less confident that these short-term securities will pay on time.

Ironically, this can create self-fulfilling problems for the Treasury. Treasury bills roll over every week, on Thursdays. Here's how it works: The government issues the bills for a "discount," then refunds the par value when they come due. So, for example, an investor might pay $995 for a bill that returns $1,000 in three months, for an equivalent of about a 2 percent annual interest rate.

As Irwin says, there's an easy answer to this. Just raise the debt ceiling.

"South Park" Takes On George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin and "World War Z" Mash-Up

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 1:57 PM EDT

On the next episode of South Park, Eric Cartman becomes a fourth-grade fusion of Brad Pitt and George Zimmerman. Just two weeks ago, the Comedy Central series ran an episode addressing the controversy surrounding the NSA's domestic spying program; the show's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and the rest of the writing crew) have a well-established track record of mining recent major news stories for their satirical jabs.

According to a press release, "the world faces death, destruction, chaos and Eric Cartman" in an episode titled, "World War Zimmerman." Cartman, the series' iconic and fascist child-madman, is "deeply disturbed by a single person who he sees as a threat to all humanity. He races around the country to put an end to Patient Zero, the ticking time bomb that is Token." (Token Black is the richest kid in South Park and also the Colorado mountain town's only black kid.)

In this 11-second preview clip, Cartman frantically waves a handgun in public while bystanders are trying to enjoy their sunny day. "Everyone clear the streets! We gotta get the fuck outta here!" Cartman says.

The episode takes its cues from the summer's zombie-takeover movie World War Z (in which Brad Pitt also searches for a "Patient Zero"), as well as George Zimmerman and the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. South Park has pulled off these mash-ups of pop-culture and big news before; for instance, their 2008 presidential election episode turns into a parody of Ocean's Eleven (another film starring Pitt). As for taking on racially charged issues in America, South Park aired the 2007 episode "With Apologies to Jesse Jackson," a comic exploration of the use and effect of the word "nigger." Beyond that, the show has weighed in on Occupy Wall Street, conservative anti-immigration hardliners, Al Gore, Glenn Beck, media coverage of Terri Schiavo, caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, and a whole host of hot-button issues and personalities. Nowadays, South Park is arguably more famous for its irreverent social and political commentary than for the scatological and envelope-pushing crude humor that first made the show a hit.

VIDEO: David Corn on the "Hidden Infrastructure" of the Right

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell and Krystal Ball this week about why Republicans in Congress are more worried about the Tea Party than they are about John Boehner. Watch here:

The Shutdown Might Be Hurting the GOP's Chances in Next Year's Election

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 1:03 PM EDT

Poll analyst extraordinaire Sam Wang thinks that things are looking fairly bleak for Republicans right now:

PPP surveyed 24 Congressional districts currently held by Republicans. They asked voters to choose between their current representative and a generic Democrat....The swing was toward Democrats for 23 races [] and toward the Republican for 1 race.

....Since the election is over a year away, it is hard to predict how this will translate to future seat gain/loss. If the election were held today, Democrats would pick up around 30 seats, giving them control of the chamber. I do not expect this to happen.

....In a followup series of questions, PPP then told respondents that their representative voted for the shutdown. At that point, the average swing moved a further 3.1% toward Democrats....That would be more like a 50-seat gain for Democrats — equivalent to a wave election. An analyst would have to be crazy to predict that!

I would echo Wang's caution. It's quite normal for Democrats to perform well in generic congressional polls 6-9 months before a midterm election, so this probably doesn't mean much. As for the shutdown, I think it's an open question whether that's still going to be a live issue by next November. It might be! Or it might have been completely forgotten. I just wouldn't put much stock in this either way.

Americans Are Poorly Educated, Part XXVI

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 12:27 PM EDT

The OECD has a big new study out about literacy and numeracy in developed countries, and the United States didn't do very well:

The study, perhaps the most detailed of its kind, shows that the well-documented pattern of several other countries surging past the United States in students’ test scores and young people’s college graduation rates corresponds to a skills gap, extending far beyond school. In the United States, young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy.

More surprisingly, even middle-aged Americans — who, on paper, are among the best-educated people of their generation anywhere in the world — are barely better than middle of the pack in skills.

Every year someone conducts a geography test among America's high school students, and every year the results are the same: lots of kids can't find France on a map. Quelle horreur! And every year I have the same reaction: how about if we give this test to adults? I'll bet most of them can't find France on a map either.

This is why the second paragraph of the excerpt above doesn't surprise me. It also wouldn't surprise me if the same thing were true 50 years ago. There's a widespread myth that America used to be the best educated country in the world and has since slipped into mediocrity, but as near as I can tell it's just a myth. America's kids have always been fairly middle-of-the-pack. Ditto for America's adults. My guess is that this is largely due to averages being pulled down by enduring levels of inequality and the legacy of racism, but that's just a guess.

So I'm honestly not sure what to think about this. Low literacy levels are obviously a serious issue. This isn't something that should be casually dismissed. And yet....as you can see in the chart, the difference in literacy levels between countries is fairly small except at the very top and bottom, and the United States is sandwiched right in between Denmark, Germany, and France. Does anyone think that Denmark and Germany are educational hellholes doomed to decline and poverty?

As an aside, one odd result in this study is that America does worse in numeracy than in literacy. This is odd because if you look at NAEP test scores over time, it's the math scores that have gotten substantially better. If there's an area where you'd think the United States would be in relatively better shape, it's math.

For now, I'll wait for some more expert commentary. I've seen too much of this stuff to panic about it without digging a little deeper, and especially without knowing if it's truly an alarming new development, or just the same results as always.

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The Shutdown Could Make This Serious Salmonella Outbreak Even Worse

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Update: On Tuesday, the CDC recalled some of its furloughed employees to work on the salmonella outbreak. It also discovered that the strain of salmonella seems to be antibiotic resistant. Tom Philpott has the full story here.

Over at Wired, Maryn McKenna reports on a major outbreak of the foodborne illness salmonella. So far, 278 people in 18 states have been sickened with the pathogen, which causes fever, cramps, diarrhea, and in severe cases, even death. In a press release the USDA identified the source of the outbreak as contaminated raw chicken from a producer called Foster Farms and said that the products were sold at supermarkets in Washington State, Oregon, and California. As of 11:30 AM EDT Tuesday, Foster Farms had a note up saying, "No recall is in effect. Products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked." Foster Farms' chicken was linked to another salmonella outbreak—134 illnesses in 13 states—in July, the CDC reported.

Usually when there's an outbreak of this scale, the CDC mobilizes to pinpoint the source of the contaminated food. However, McKenna explains that the shutdown "means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening." Individual states can use their own resources to trace the outbreak, but so far it looks like they won't be able to use the federal government's databases.

Of course, this is hardly the first recent outbreak of salmonella linked to poultry; Tom Philpott writes about how crowded conditions and overuse of antibiotics on farms make for perfect bacteria breeding grounds here. This CDC graphic shows the growing number of salmonella cases over the past two decades:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

Andrew Cuomo's Much-Touted Corruption Watchdog Is Beginning to Look Like a Joke

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 11:10 AM EDT
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

In June, an anti-corruption bill that included the holy grail of money-in-politics reforms—public financing of elections—died in the New York State Senate. Progressives and election reformers had pinned their hopes on passing a public financing system modeled after New York City's, a system that helped Bill de Blasio clinch the Democratic mayoral primary. But they weren't left empty-handed when the bill died: In its place, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) created the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption to get at the root of Albany's corruption woes and to study the funding of state elections.

Now, it looks like Cuomo's commission is not all it's cracked up to be. And the Cuomo administration is partly to blame.

State lawmakers are refusing to turn over the information about their outside income that the corruption commission requested, the New York Times reports. Cuomo's staff, meanwhile, "has leaned on the commission to limit the scope of its investigations," according to the Times.

Here's more from the Times:

The turmoil over the commission began in late August, when it asked members of both houses of the Legislature to release information about their outside income above $20,000. Several weeks later, lawyers for the Legislature refused, saying, "These demands substantially exceed what New York law authorizes."

The commission's relationship with the governor's office has also been freighted. It issued a flurry of subpoenas at the start, but then was slowed by Mr. Cuomo's office in several instances, according to people familiar with the situation who insisted on anonymity because they feared retribution by the governor.

In one such instance, when the commission began to investigate how a handful of high-end residential developers in New York City won tax breaks from Albany, its staff drafted, and its three co-chairmen approved, a subpoena of the Real Estate Board of New York. But Mr. Cuomo’s office persuaded the commission not to subpoena the board, whose leaders have given generously to Mr. Cuomo's campaign, and which supported a business coalition, the Committee to Save New York, that ran extensive television advertising promoting his legislative agenda.

A Cuomo spokeswoman told the Times that "ultimately all investigatory decisions are up to the unanimous decision of the co-chairs." Still, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he's worried about "interference and micromanagement" at the commission, and good-government groups are increasingly disillusioned over the commission's trajectory. "New Yorkers are losing patience with the continuing culture of corruption in Albany and the continued indictment of their representatives," reads a letter from Common Cause New York to Cuomo. "The commission was established to help restore their faith in government, not confirm their cynicism that the system will never change."

The Problem With Jon Stewart's Obamacare Interview

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 11:06 AM EDT

From First Read:

If you’re a Democrat and you’ve lost Jon Stewart, you have a problem. And that’s exactly what happened when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went on the “Daily Show” last night to talk about the glitches with the Obamacare website. “As the secretary sat down to begin the segment, Stewart opened a laptop on his desk. ‘I’m going to attempt to download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first’”....We said it yesterday and we’ll say it again: The last thing you ever thought would happen is that Team Obama would have a website issue. These were the folks who pioneered how campaigns interact with voters over the internet.

Obamacare's website issues are obviously serious, but at the same time: give me a break, folks. I'm pretty sure the First Read team is well aware that Obama wasn't allowed to just call up his favorite web guru and tell him to get the old campaign team together and set up the Obamacare site. It had to go through the usual government procurement and bidding process, and was designed and created by whichever outside consultants won the job.

The NBC news team knows this, right? So why do they act like they don't?

As for Stewart, I'm not sure what to say. I watched his interview last night, and I thought Stewart was easily as big a problem as Sebelius. He decided to ask about the conservative talking point that it's unfair to delay the employer mandate while leaving the individual mandate in place, and Sebelius clearly tap danced a bit. But the big problem, as near as I can tell, is that Stewart was his usual unprepared self for this interview. Frankly, I couldn't tell throughout the interview if he even understood what the employer mandate was. This happens all the time, usually with conservatives knocking Stewart around because they know what they're talking about and he doesn't. This time it happened to be a liberal, but the result was the same: an incoherent interview in which he couldn't drive home his point because he wasn't really sure what his point was.

Following the interview, he made a gag about still not understanding what was going on, and then suggested that maybe Sebelius had been lying. That was really beneath him. Sebelius didn't do a great job of answering the question, but I sure didn't catch her in any lies. She basically told him that the employer mandate applied only to businesses with more than 50 employees (true); that most of these businesses already offer their employees health coverage (true); and that the number of people affected by the delay of the employer mandate was pretty small (true). RAND estimates that the delay will affect 1,000 firms and 300,000 people, about 0.2 percent of the population.

Now, is delaying the employer mandate "fair?" That's hardly a question with a factual answer, so I'm not sure what kind of reply Stewart expected to get in the first place. In the end, this was just another example of Stewart on his high horse again, and it's always been his least attractive persona, regardless of whether it's prompted by liberal or conservative outrage. Sebelius obviously tried to put the best possible face on the Obamacare rollout, just as all politicians do, but she didn't lie.

POSTSCRIPT: And why was the employer mandate delayed? The truth is that we've never gotten a definitive explanation. The basic answer is that the regulatory requirements turned out to be more complex than anticipated. The deeper answer is roughly the one that Sebelius gave: it was possible to grant the delay because the effect was tiny and didn't affect anything fundamental about Obamacare. Conversely, the individual mandate isn't especially complex and does fundamentally affect Obamacare. It can't be delayed without doing serious damage to the entire law. This answer might or might not be satisfying, but it's roughly the truth.

ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: If you want a slightly more detailed description of what was wrong with this interview, and what kind of answer Sebelius should have given, Josh Barro has a pretty good rundown here.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 8, 2013

Tue Oct. 8, 2013 9:58 AM EDT

Marines from the Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East, navigate their way through the obstacle course at Camp Geiger, NC, Oct 4, 2013. This is the first company at ITB with female students as part of a deliberate collection of data on the performance of female Marines when executing existing infantry tasks and training events. US Marine Corps photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Paul S. Mancuso/Released.