2013 - %3, January

New Study Says One of Your 2013 New Year's Resolutions is Already Done

| Wed Jan. 2, 2013 12:51 PM EST

I think I'm going to file this under "too good to check." Apparently, being just a little bit overweight may be good for you:

The scientists [] found that people classified as overweight, with a BMI of 25 to 29.9, died at slightly lower rates — not higher — than those of so-called normal weight....Study lead author Katherine M. Flegal, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she and her colleagues could not say what lay behind the apparent survival edge for overweight people.

....But there also could be real reasons why carrying extra pounds could confer a survival advantage. Fatter people are not as prone to osteoporosis and have more padding to protect the bones should a patient take a tumble, lowering the risk of a life-endangering hip fracture. And carrying extra fat provides energy reserves in cases of a severe illness. Doctors know, for example, that plumper patients with heart failure or kidney failure do better than their leaner peers, and there could be other situations in which the same thing is true.

Usually I like to take a look at the actual study, rather than just trusting a news account, before I blog about it. But I think I'll pass this time. After all, my BMI is currently at a pleasantly plumpish 28, and I rather like the idea that this may actually be ideal. If your New Year's resolution was to shed a few pounds, perhaps this study is reason enough to declare victory today and then forget about it until next year.

POSTSCRIPT: Please spare me any comments about how BMI is an imperfect measure because people with lots of muscle mass can end up with high scores even though they aren't packing on much fat. That's true of lots of NBA athletes, but it's not true of most of the rest of us. For the 99%—which includes me and probably includes you too—BMI works just fine.

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Stop Making Fun of the Chinese Drywall Bill

| Wed Jan. 2, 2013 12:16 PM EST

It was an easy target. With Washington at its most dysfunctional (well, almost), Congress took a break this week from doing nothing about the fiscal cliff to hold a critical vote on a bill to...regulate drywall. Drywall! "Tomorrow the house will vote on the drywall safety act of 2012," Buzzfeed's John Stanton tweeted on Saturday. "THANK GOD OUR LONG NATIONAL DRYWALL NIGHTMARE IS OVER." "Things more urgent than #Sandy relief: Drywall Safety, Frank Buckles WWI monument & "Conveyance of certain property in Kotzebue, AK," tweeted the Daily Beast's John Avlon on Wednesday.

Congress, or at least certain factions within, deserves a lot of the flack it catches. But as it happens, drywall safety is actually pretty serious business—and was the subject of a massive investigation by our friends at Pro Publica:

ProPublica and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune began examining in May 2010 what was—or wasn't—being done to help people whose homes had been built with contaminated drywall. The problematic drywall, much of it imported from China, emitted foul odors and frequently caused mysterious failures of new appliances and electronics. Worse yet, some residents complained of serious respiratory problems, bloody noses, and migraines.

What ProPublica's Joaquin Sapien and the Herald-Tribune's Aaron Kessler discovered: that despite an investigation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), most of the primary issues remained unresolved; that some builders and suppliers knew early-on that some Chinese-made drywall was problematic but continued using it anyway; that health and structural complaints from people who lived in homes built by Habitat for Humanity in the post-Katrina "Musicians' Village" were virtually ignored; that a family-owned German company was closely involved in the operations of a Chinese subsidiary that produced some of the tainted drywall; that a proposed settlement for customers who bought bad drywall from Lowe's offered small payouts to victims and big fees to attorneys; and that bad drywall might be related to 12 infant deaths at an Army base in North Carolina.

In addition to taking steps to make Chinese companies abide by American court decisions, the new law requiring drywall manufacturers to label their products and to limit the amount of sulfur (which can corrode homes).

That's not to excuse House Republicans for not passing the Sandy relief bill or for basically just setting up a sequel to the fiscal cliff in two months—it's just that not everything that comes out of Washington is awful.

So we've got that going for us, anyway.

Someday Soon, We're Going to Need a Lot More Tax Revenue

| Wed Jan. 2, 2013 12:04 PM EST

Ross Douthat says that the $600 billion Obama raised via the fiscal cliff deal is far too small to sustain the liberal welfare state in the face of an aging population and growing budget deficits:

Given these realities, fairness and progressivity are necessarily less important to liberalism over the long run than simple dollar figures, and the American left actually has a long-run incentive to make the federal tax code less progressive, because only a broader base can keep the liberal edifice solvent in the long run.

And here I think liberals have a real reason to be discouraged by the White House’s willingness — and, more importantly, many Senate Democrats’ apparent eagerness — to compromise on tax increases for the near-rich. Liberal pundits seem most worried about what this concession signals for the next round of negotiations, over the sequester and the debt ceiling. But if I were them I’d be more worried about the longer term, and what it signals about their party’s willingness and ability to raise tax rates for anyone who isn’t super-rich. As I’ve suggested before, these negotiations amounted to a test of liberalism’s ability to raise revenue, and it isn’t clear that this outcome constitutes a passing grade: If a newly re-elected Democratic president can’t muster the political will and capital required to do something as straightforward and relatively popular as raising taxes on the tiny fraction Americans making over $250,000 when those same taxes are scheduled to go up already, then how can Democrats ever expect to push taxes upward to levels that would make our existing public progams sustainable for the long run?

I think this is a point worth taking seriously, and it's why my real preference was for a deal that would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire completely. The expiration should have been phased in—perhaps at 25 percent a year over four years starting in 2014—which would have allowed the economy to recover in the short term, but raised the revenue we're going to need in the long term.

And there's not much question we're going to need more revenue. I'll have more on this in a couple of days, but unless we want to abandon any pretense of decent care for the elderly—and we don't, no matter what Paul Ryan believes—we're going to need to raise substantially more tax revenue in the future. But if Republicans remain dead set against tax increases, and even Democrats are unwilling to raise taxes on the middle class, how is that going to happen? As things stand now, not only are tax increases on the middle class unthinkable, but Obama was even forced to cave in on the estate tax thanks to Democratic nervousness about offending the ultra-rich.

In one sense, I guess it's not worth borrowing trouble. If we're going to need more tax revenue in the future, let's deal with it in the future. Maybe political pressure will force Republicans to capitulate. Maybe Democrats will take over Congress. Maybe a latter-day John Galt will come along and invent a free energy machine and none of this will matter.

Still, over the next 20 years we're probably going to have to increase taxes by something like five points of GDP. That's an increase of nearly a third in the federal government's tax haul, and we just fought a battle royal just to get something like half a point of GDP. Eventually, something will have to give.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 2, 2013

Wed Jan. 2, 2013 11:00 AM EST
A CH-53E Super Stallion flies over properties outside of El Centro, Calif., on the way to a weapons training range Dec. 20.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Christopher Johns.

Our 10 Favorite Fake Twitter Accounts

Wed Jan. 2, 2013 7:01 AM EST

Twitter has become a comedic haven for role players and impostors posing as politicians, celebrities, and inanimate objects. Behold a few of our faves.

Part 1 of the Fiscal Cliff is Over. Now Gird Yourself for Part 2.

| Tue Jan. 1, 2013 1:41 PM EST

The fiscal cliff is dead. Long live the fiscal cliff.

It's over. Sort of. The Senate voted 89-8 to prevent middle-class taxes from rising while allowing rates to increase for taxpayers with incomes over $450,000. Democrats caved in on the estate tax, so the elderly super-wealthy can breathe easy on that front. Capital gains taxes go back up to 20 percent for high earners, and Democrats and Republicans split the difference on dividend taxation, raising it to 20 percent too, rather than the 39.6 percent Obama wanted. The working class got an extension of the stimulus tax cuts, but lost out on an extension of the payroll tax holiday. The deal also includes a bunch of other miscellaneous provisions (Suzy Khimm has the details here), and the end result is a revenue increase of about $600 billion over ten years.

In bonus news, the milk cliff was also averted. At the last minute, the Senate added a nine-month extension of the current farm bill to the legislation. This means we won't be reverting to the 1949 law, which would have doubled milk prices across the country. Lactophiles can now breathe as easily as millionaires in hospices.

But it's not over til it's over, and the fiscal cliff is far from over. First, the House still has to vote on the deal. They'll probably approve it, though. [Late night update: They did.] More importantly, negotiators punted over the debt ceiling and the sequestration cuts. That's the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that emerged from the 2011 debt deiling debacle, split evenly between domestic programs and defense programs. Congress now has two months to hammer out a deal on that front, and Obama held a press conference yesterday warning Republicans that he wouldn't accept a deal that was all spending cuts and no revenue increases. If this sounds like the exact same thing they've been fighting over for the past year, give yourself an A.

So as soon as Part 1 of the fiscal cliff deal is safely signed and in the history books, we're going to have the same, dreary argument all over again. Call it Fiscal Cliff 2: The Dogfight in the District Continues. Republicans will once again try to use the debt limit to hold the country hostage, hoping that Obama will—once again!—play the role of the responsible adult in the room and cave in to their demands because he understands that America can't default on its debts. Obama, for his part, says he's tired of being typecast, and he's demanding script changes. Check back on February 28 to see how it all turns out.

So let's tote up the winners and losers. On the deal itself, despite my misgivings yesterday, I guess I'd score it a short-term win for Obama. He had to give up a few things he wanted, notably the $250,000 income cutoff that he campaigned on, but he did wring a tax increase out of congressional Republicans. In the longer term, I'd score it a win for the GOP. Their backs were against a wall, since the Bush tax cuts were all going to expire anyway on January 1, and they managed to do two things. First, they kept the size of the deal limited. Second, they showed that Obama, as usual, isn't serious when he lays down a line in the sand. No matter how firmly he insists on something, he's always willing to deal. This is going to make Part 2 of the fiscal cliff negotiations very, very dangerous.

Beyond partisan politics, the American public has been ill served by all this. Common sense dictates the kind of deal we needed: lower taxes and more stimulus now, followed by a serious attempt at deficit reduction in the medium-term future. We got a bit of the former, but the truth is that extending the middle-class tax cuts was always the least important part of what we needed to insure that our economy continues to recover. What we really needed was an extension of the payroll tax holiday, a complete end to the sequestration cuts, and more infrastructure spending. Those are the things that would have given us the biggest bang for the buck in the near term, and we got none of that.

In the long term, we also got nothing. No long-term revenue increases and no long-term entitlement reform. David Brooks has it about right: "The country either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the burdens we are placing on our children. No coalition of leaders has successfully confronted the voters, and made them heedful of the ruin they are bringing upon the nation." I'm not quite the deficit Chicken Little that Brooks is, since a lot of our current deficit problems will go away naturally when the economy recovers. Still, not all of them will. We do need some common-sense reforms, and we also need to accept that, like it or not, tax revenues are going to have to increase as our nation ages. There's simply no getting around that.

But Republicans are no closer to accepting reality on that front than they've ever been. Our current trench warfare will continue for the foreseeable future, and it's unlikely that anyone will really come out a winner.