2013...mewhat-popular - %2

A Long Shutdown Would Seriously Hurt Economic Growth

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 11:49 AM EDT

Via Dylan Matthews, here's a chart that summarizes some of the leading estimates of the cost of a government shutdown. A brief shutdown (in blue) wouldn't do too much damage. But a longer shutdown (in green) would. The average of the five estimates is that it would reduce fourth quarter GDP by about 1 percentage point. As CRFB points out, estimates of fourth quarter growth are only a little above 2 percent right now, so this would be a big hit.

Think about this. Without any headwinds, fourth quarter GDP growth would probably clock in around 3 percent or so. The sequester has already cut that down to about 2.3 percent. A long shutdown could cut it further to 1.3 percent. If this happens, it means that Republican economic folly will have reduced economic growth in the fourth quarter by half or more. Thanks, Republicans!

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Does the Government Shutdown Delay the Debt Ceiling Indefinitely?

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 11:05 AM EDT

The government is shut down. Since Social Security, Medicare, and other mandatory programs make up the bulk of federal spending, this doesn't mean we're no longer spending money. But we're spending a lot less. At least a third less, I think, and that should put us pretty close to balanced budget levels of spending. We might even be under that.

So....does this mean that we're no longer running up new debt? And does that in turn mean that we're not going to hit the debt ceiling as long as the government remains shut down? Have we gotten any kind of estimate from the Treasury Department about this?

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make this clear, I'm aware that once the shutdown is resolved all the money not being spent now will be disbursed. (Assuming that Congress approves back pay for furloughed workers, which I'm not sure I'd bet on.) But that's only after the shutdown is resolved. In the meantime, we're no longer barreling toward a breach of the debt ceiling, are we?

Don't Blame John Roberts for the Medicaid Mess

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 10:48 AM EDT

The New York Times notes today that lots of poor people won't benefit from Obamacare because the states they live in have rejected the Medicaid expansion that was part of the law. Matt Yglesias comments:

Something that's worth noting here more prominently than they do is that this is not an oversight of the law or of the Obama administration. It's due to the actions of Chief Justice John Roberts and then to a number of Republican Party state and local elected officials....The authors of the law decided to make state governments an offer they couldn't refuse—on the one hand, expansion would be nearly 100% paid for by the federal government while on the other hand failure to expand would come with significant financial penalties.

Then came Roberts. In his landmark ruling upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate, he burnished his conservative cred by striking down the penalties portion of the Medicaid expansion.

I think this is unfair. In fact, there were only two justices who upheld the Medicaid expansion (Ginsburg and Sotomayor). All the rest, including the liberals Breyer and Kagan, struck it down. So it wasn't even a close call. The vote against the Medicaid provision was 7-2.

And as much as I dislike the result, I can't find a lot of fault with this. The basic holding was simple: given our federalist structure, states can't be forced to help fund new federal programs like Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. They have to be given a genuine choice. If rejecting the program merely means losing the benefits even though your state's income tax dollars are helping to fund it, that's a tough choice, but still a real one. Conversely, if you're threatened with losing not just the funds for the expansion, but your entire existing Medicaid program, it's not a real choice at all. Nobody could even dream of doing that. In practical terms, you're being forced to accept the expansion and you're being forced to pay for it with state dollars.

I can't find a problem with that logic. I don't like it, since my personal preference is for more federal control over national policies, but given our laws and constitutional structure, it's hard to argue with. If Congress really wanted Medicaid to apply universally, they should have federalized the program and funded it completely out of federal dollars. That would have been unquestionably constitutional. But they didn't.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 3, 2013

Thu Oct. 3, 2013 10:21 AM EDT

US Army Sgt. Brandon Coburn, a medic from 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Dragon, is hoisted back into his crew's UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a training exercise near Forward Operating Base Fenty, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Sept. 16, 2013. Using a hoist allows medevac crews to raise and lower supplies and personnel into remote or treacherous areas where landing the aircraft is impossible. US Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Margaret Taylor.

Anti-Gay Football Analyst to Address DC Conservative Summit

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 8:50 AM EDT
Craig James.

On Wednesday, the Family Research Council announced a new group of speakers for the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, one of the nation's leading conferences for social conservative activists. Among the featured guests: Failed Texas senate candidate and recently-canned college football analyst Craig James, who sued Fox Sports for wrongful termination last month, arguing that his firing over anti-gay comments constituted religious discrimination.

James, a former NFL running back and victim of a world-historical Google bomb—in which pranksters game a target's Google search results to associate them with something unflattering—fell flat in his long-shot bid to win the Texas Republican senate nomination in 2012, but not before distinguishing himself as a fierce opponent of gay rights. "I think right now in this country, our moral fiber is sliding down a slope that is going to be hard to stop if we don't stand up with leaders who don't go ride in gay parades," he warned at a GOP primary debate. "I can assure you I will never ride in a gay parade." He went on to suggest that gay people will be judge (The man who won that primary election, now-Sen. Ted Cruz, also announced his opposition to gay pride parades.)

Those views didn't do much for James' candidacy (he took just 4 percent of the vote) and they ultimately cost him at least one job. ESPN never specified its reasons for letting James go, but used James' anti-gay debate comments as an excuse to announce that it would not be retaining him after his election was over. His subsequent employers at Fox Sports were more candid, telling the Dallas Morning News, "We just asked ourselves how Craig's statements would play in our human resources department."

Still, James makes for an unlikely martyr for conservatives, if only because he was an enormously unpopular broadcaster to begin with—the kind of on-air personality that would compel college football fans to make his name synonymous with quintuple homicide. In 2011, Sports Illustrated's college football writers unanimously selected him as their least-favorite analyst on television.

Watch: Robots That Hunt Down Jellyfish and Destroy Them

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Over the weekend the world's largest boiling-water nuclear reactor, Sweden's Oskarshamn plant, was paralyzed after a bloom of moon jellyfish clogged plant's cooling systems, forcing it to shut down. According to the New York Times, the jellyfish had been cleared out of the plant's pipes by Tuesday, and engineers are preparing to restart the reactor. Odd as it sounds, this is actually a pretty common problem (yes, really). 

"The last time this happened [at this plant] was in August 2005, when we had to shut down Oskarshamn-1 because of a jellyfish invasion," a spokesperson for EON SE, the company that co-owns the plant, told Bloomberg. "This situation is caused by a huge amount of jellyfish, just one is definitely not enough to cause problems."

Jellyfish blooms—the term for giant swarms of jellyfish—have also been responsible for nuclear shut downs in California, Florida, Israel, Scotland, India, and Japan, where one plant has reported removing as much as 150 tons of jellyfish from its system in one day. In 1999, a jellyfish bloom clogged the cooling system of a major coal-fired plant in the Philippines, leaving 40 million people without power. And in 2006, in a nigh unprecedented act of aggression, jellyfish in Brisbane, Australia, afflicted the massive nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan with an "acute case of fouling," clogging its cooling systems and forcing it to leave the harbor.

Scientists at Korea's Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have come up with one solution to the jellyfish problem: build robots to kill them. For the last three years, the team has been working to create robots that can travel the ocean, seeking out swarms of jellyfish using a camera and GPS. Once the jellyfish are located, the robots set about shredding the jellies with an underwater propeller, according to KAIST and IEEE Spectrum.

This is what the robots look like on the surface. They roam in a group of three:

And the video at top is what they're doing beneath the surface, using a specialized net and propeller. Be warned, it's graphic.

In preliminary tests, the robots could pulverize 2,000 pounds of jellyfish per hour, KAIST says. The team sees other uses for autonomous sea-faring robots, too, such as marine waste removal.

Scientists have found that jellyfish are surprisingly resilient in the face of changing oceans. Though ocean acidification—caused by the uptick of carbon in the atmosphere being absorbed by the oceans—is harming coral reefs and imperiling shellfish, jellyfish are thriving. Prodigious blooms have decimated fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico, the Black Sea, and in southern Africa, where a 30,000 square-mile swarm has been described as a "curtain of death" and "a stingy-slimy killing field." Still, some scientists argue that jellyfish populations fluctuate naturally and that there hasn't actually been a significant increase.

In Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceanbiologist Lisa-ann Gershwin argues that human activities are damaging the world's oceans and paving the way for a jellyfish explosion:

We are creating a world more like the late Precambrian than the late 1800s—a world where jellyfish ruled the seas and organisms with shells didn’t exist. We are creating a world where we humans may soon be unable to survive, or want to.

The 1,400-megawatt unit at Oskarshamn should be back at full capacity sometime this week, according to National Geographic. But if Stung!​ is right, we might have much bigger problems to worry about soon. These jellyfish-shredding robots might just be our last, best hope.

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Geek Mythology: What Tech Startups Say vs. What They Actually Do

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
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RECORDSETTER
Rhetoric: "Our mission is to raise the bar of human achievement."
Product/service: User-generated world records such as the most hats worn while riding a bicycle, fastest "poking" of 10 Facebook friends, and longest Skype call.

 

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SNAPCHAT
Rhetoric: "Change the way people communicate for the better."
Product/service: App that sends photos that disappear after a few seconds (useful for sexting).

 

 

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EVEREST
Rhetoric: "How can we turn everyone into a da Vinci?"
Product/service: Calendar app with social-sharing functions.

 

 

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DROPCAM
Rhetoric: "Creating cutting-edge technologies that are revolutionizing the way people view the world."
Product/service: Nanny-cams that stream on a smartphone.

 

 

logo

 

POGOSEAT
Rhetoric: "Changing the world, one upgrade at a time!"
Product/service: App that lets you get better seats at a sporting event.

 

 

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PATH
Rhetoric: "The beginning of history is defined by mankind's first attempt to record life."
Product/service: Social network for mobile devices; also sells fancy emoji, such as a red panda drinking coffee.

 

 

logo

 

ZAARLY
Rhetoric: "Changing how the economy works."
Product/service: App that helps you find local goods and services such as Bundt cake, terrarium-making kits, and dance lessons.

 

logo

 

SQUARE
Rhetoric: "We want to build products that make people feel like they have superpowers."
Product/service: Enables mobile payments.

 

 

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EXEC
Rhetoric: Lets "anyone go and do whatever they're good at."
Product/service: App that lets you book house cleaners via smartphone (basically Uber for maids).

In Syria, We Don't Want Rebels to Lose, But We Don't Want Them to Win Either

| Thu Oct. 3, 2013 12:28 AM EDT

I've written a couple of times before about the apparent policy of the Obama administration in Syria: to arm the rebels just enough to produce a stalemate. Why? Because we don't really have anyone we like in this fight. "In a nutshell," I wrote in June, "the idea here is that we want both sides to be evenly matched so the fighting continues as long as possible. That will weaken pretty much everyone we hate: Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, and the Al Qaeda groups among the rebels. As long as these folks continue killing each other, we're happy."

Until now, there's been some evidence that this was Obama's strategy, but nothing conclusive. Today, however, Greg Miller reports that this really is what Obama is doing:

The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.

....U.S. officials said the classified program has been constrained by limits on CIA resources, the reluctance of rebel fighters to leave Syria for U.S. instruction and Jordan’s restrictions on the CIA’s paramilitary presence there. But the limited scope also reflects a deeper tension in the Obama administration’s strategy on Syria, one that has sought to advance U.S. interests but avoid being drawn more deeply into a conflict that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 100,000 people since it began in 2011.

This is something of a moral nightmare, no? However, the alternatives aren't much more appealing:

The Obama administration has explored the idea of using the U.S. military to expand the training program to what some officials have described as “industrial strength.” But Defense Department officials said there has been no decision to do so and cited significant obstacles.

It is unclear whether Jordan would welcome such a large U.S. military footprint, which would mean converting a covert program into one officially acknowledged by the United States. There are also legal impediments, including a measure known as the Leahy Law that would require a determination that no recipients of U.S. military assistance had committed human rights abuses.

No thanks. Aside from John McCain, not many people like the idea of seriously ramping up US aid and starting up another Afghanistan. At the same time, there's also not much support for a policy of doing nothing at all. (That would be my preference, but I'm in a distinct minority.) Like it or not, then, the stalemate strategy is what we're left with. Boo yah.

Chart of the Day: Wall Street Is Starting to Get Nervous About the Debt Ceiling

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 6:33 PM EDT

James Pethokoukis passes along the chart on the right from Goldman Sachs, which shows the yield curve on treasury bills maturing at various dates. The curve on September 16 was pretty flat. The curve on September 30 showed a bit of an uptick for bonds maturing in the second half of October. A day later, on October 1, the yield curve went nuts. Bonds maturing in the second half of October—which are at risk of delayed payment if the debt ceiling is reached—cratered in value, which means they're now sporting big yields. If you buy a bond that matures on October 31, you can expect a return of more than 8 percent.

Treasury bonds aren't at any risk of genuine default, so what explains this? Two things. First, there's apparently some genuine risk that bond coupons might not get paid if we hit the debt ceiling on October 18. This has to do with the fact that the Treasury's computer systems can't easily prioritize payments, which means that, willy nilly, maybe some bond coupons will be missed. Among large investors, there's also a worry that Wall Street systems can't easily distinguish between bonds that are in technical default and those that aren't, and this could cause bonds maturing within the danger zone to be rejected on the repo market if you try to use them as collateral. I don't know if either of these fears is really reasonable, but that's the chatter right now.

I'll defer to anyone who knows more about this than me—a very large class of people, I imagine—but if I'm reading this right, market fears are taking the following form:

  • Bonds maturing after October 18 might end up in technical default, which reduces their usefulness as collateral in the repo market and thus their value.
  • In addition, these bonds might also get paid late, and with maturity dates only a few weeks away, even a few weeks of delay has a big effect on their value.
  • Bonds maturing after October 31 are safer, since everyone is assuming that things will be settled one way or another by mid-November at the latest.

I've mentioned before my theory that the now-combined budget/debt ceiling crisis could end up being resolved only by some kind of market crash. Pleading from the business community may be falling on deaf ears at the moment, but the one thing that really does seem to get the attention of even tea party Republicans is a market catastrophe. I don't know if we'll get to that point, but this chart seems to suggest that if the budget/debt ceiling standoff continues for another couple of weeks, that's what will finally put an end to it. Even John Boehner will finally tell the tea partiers that enough is enough if the repo market has seized up and U.S. treasury bonds are selling at about the same premium as those from Greece.

3 Ways the NFL Denied Football's Concussion Crisis

| Wed Oct. 2, 2013 4:21 PM EDT
Researchers examine the brain of a dead ex-high school football player who died in his 20s.

Both ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated published excerpts today from Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada's League of Denial, their much-anticipated investigation into the NFL's efforts to downplay football's link to devastating brain trauma. The book, which comes out next Tuesday, takes a look at the Big Tobacco-like tactics the league used over two decades to allay public concerns about concussions and long-term injury.

Here are three ways the Fainaru brothers argue that the NFL attempted to downplay the risks of the game:

1. Cherry-picking data in NFL-sponsored research: At a 2007 concussion summit meant to update new commissioner Roger Goodell, neuropsychologist Bill Barr, who had worked for the New York Jets, blasted the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee for using only select data in a study that concluded that NFL players were quick to recover from concussions:

"I said that the data collection is all biased," Barr said. "And I showed slides of that. Basically I pointed out that we had been obtaining baselines on players for 10 years, and when you look at the study it only included a small amount of data. My calculations were that their published studies only included 15 percent of the available data. Let's put it this way: There were nearly 5,000 baseline studies that had been obtained in that 10-year period. And only 655 were published in the study."

2. Co-opting a reputable journal to publish questionable research: After the creation of the MTBI committee, the NFL used the influential medical journal Neurosurgery (whose editor in chief consulted for the New York Giants and whom "some people around the NFL also considered…something of a jock sniffer") to publish its work:

The league used that journal, which some researchers would come to ridicule as the "Journal of No NFL Concussions," to publish an unprecedented series of papers, several of which were rejected by peer reviewers and editors and later disavowed even by some of their own authors. The papers portrayed NFL players as superhuman and impervious to brain damage. They included such eye-popping assertions as "Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis."

3. Blasting independent researchers: After neuropathologist Ann McKee (subject of a terrific 2012 Grantland profile) told reporters in 2009 that the brain of a dead 45-year-old ex-NFL player named Tom McHale looked like that of a 72-year-old former boxer—adding, "I have never seen this disease in the general population, only in these athletes"—she got a call from Ira Casson, co-chair of the MTBI committee, who wanted her to travel to the league's New York City offices to present her work. The meeting was antagonistic:

To many in the room, Casson seemed especially combative. "Casson interrupted the most," said Colonel Jaffee [the national director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center]. "He was…at times mocking. These were pretty compelling neuropathological findings, so to outright deny there could be a relationship, I didn't think [Casson] was really making an honest assessment of the evidence."

…McKee had experienced heated debate before, but this, she thought, was almost personal. "I felt like they weren't really listening," she said, "like they had their heads in the sand." Casson, Pellman and others bombarded McKee and Perl with alternative theories: steroids, nutritional supplements, high blood pressure, diabetes. Finally McKee threw up her hands. "You are delusional," she told them.

A PBS Frontline documentary, also called League of Denial, will air Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT. (It is the result of a yearlong collaboration between ESPN, where the Fainaru brothers work, and Frontline—a joint project that ESPN recently pulled out of, allegedly due to NFL pressure.) Here's the trailer: