The New York Daily News reports that city residents are "outraged" because silly federal bureaucrats have ordered all their street signs to be changed from all-uppercase to upper-and-lowercase. Go down nine paragraphs, however, and you get this:

The mixed upper- and lowercase rule was adopted in 2003, but municipalities were given until 2018 to comply completely, Hecox said....The additional cost to the city, if any, will be "marginal" because it receives a steady stream of state funding for routine sign repairs and replacement, DOT spokesman Seth Solomonow said. The life of a typical sign is about a decade, so most of the city's signs would be replaced in the next few years anyway, Solomonow said.

So this rule was adopted in 2003, cities have until 2018 to comply, it improves safety, and it won't actually cost much of anything at all. Count me as disappointingly non-outraged.

Last night, in the latest evidence that the Murdoch-ization of the Wall Street Journal proceeds apace, the WSJ reported that McDonald's was threatening to cancel its employee health insurance, calling it "the latest indication of possible unintended consequences from the health overhaul."

Yawn. Put this one in the same bucket as the student health insurance scare a few weeks ago. As Aaron Carroll points out, there's nothing either new or unintended about this. As Igor Volsky points out, both McDonald's and the Obama administration said this morning that the story was overblown. "Wrong," said HHS. "Completely false," said McDonald's. And as Jon Cohn points out, this whole manufactured story is about crappy health plans that provide almost no benefit in the first place:

The policies in question are so-called mini-med plans with very limited benefits. In the case of McDonald's, according to the Journal, there are two options: Employees who go with the minimum plan pay $14 a week for a policy that won't cover more than $2,000 in medical bills a year. Employees who opt for the "generous" option pay about $32 a week for a policy that maxes out at $10,000.

To call that "insurance" is to distort the definition, since these policies would do very little to help people with even moderately serious medical conditions. (You can blow through $10,000 in medical care with one emergency room visit.)....In the long run, McDonald's employees need policies that protect them in case of serious medical problems. And they need policies they can afford. They'll get those policies thanks to the Affordable Care Act — but not until 2014, because the administration and Congress couldn't come up with enough money to implement the full scheme sooner.

To summarize: ACA requires health insurers to spend 80-85% of premium dollars on actual patient care. The mini-med folks claim they can't possibly meet this target. (They're probably blowing smoke, but leave that aside.) HHS knows all about this and is working on phase-in rules to accomodate problems. McDonald's says they have no plans to drop coverage. And the entire thing is a short-term transition issue, since crappy mini-med policies will hopefully be replaced by actual useful coverage when ACA fully kicks in in 2014.

But other than that, it was a great story.


I want to draw everyone's attention to two particularly depressing news items. The first is from the New York Times, which wants us to feel sorry for rich people whose taxes will go up under President Barack Obama's tax plan:

As the political battle drags on... it has also veered into a more basic matter of fairness, whether a person who earns more than $200,000 a year should be taxed at rates similar to those who make $5 million.

As Jon Chait points out, this is just wrong. In America, we have something called marginal tax rates. If you move into a higher tax bracket, you're not taxed at a higher rate on all your income—just the income above the minimum for that bracket. The poor, benighted individuals who make $200,001 will only pay a higher taxes on the $1 they make that's over $200,000. Because of this, people who make $5 million pay (and, under the Obama plan, will continue to pay) taxes at a significantly higher effective rate than people who make, say, $270,000. Socialism!

The second item comes via the New York city tabloids (the Post and the Daily News), which both have stories on how annoyed New Yorkers are that the government is mandating a font change on street signs. Dan Amira of the New York magazine's wonderful Daily Intel blog does the honors on this silliness. As Amira points out, the change was mandated in 2003 in order to improve safety (the new font has been proven to reduce accidents), cities and states have 15 years to switch out the old signs, and the change isn't likely to cost the city much of anything in terms of extra money or work since 8,000 signs are replaced each year due to wear and tear anyway. But, you know, big government is evil!

The National Oil Spill Commission continues its investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, but the president's panel remains hampered by its inability to compel key witnesses to testify and turn over documents. Senate Republicans blocked a bill to grant the commission subpoena power in July. Now the Senate has gone home once without moving the measure forward.

The House passed the measure with nearly unanimous support in June, by a vote of 420 to 1. But the following month Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) objected to moving it forward, though he said he was just blocking it on behalf of another member of his caucus. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who has led the effort to get the bill passed in the upper chamber, tried to work out a way to get it through as a stand-alone measure before senators departed this week, but that didn't happen. While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said back in July that the Senate GOP would drop the objection, his spokesman told the Wall Street Journal this week that he had changed his mind; Republicans would again block the measure because they want a "congressionally appointed panel, not a panel appointed by Mr. Obama that some Republicans view as partisan."

Obviously, the stalemate in the Senate is the cause of much frustration these days. The spill commission is supposed to deliver a report on the disaster and recommendations for the future of offshore drilling to the president by mid-January, but is significantly limited by the inability to force witnesses to appear before the panel or provide necessary documents. The Houston Chronicle reports that commissioners are growing frustrated:

Bob Graham, Reilly's co-chairman, said Congress' inaction is curtailing investigators' attempts to sort out conflicting reports from workers involved.
"What we want to be able to do is put all of these people under ... oath and drill down as deep as necessary in order to resolve this conflict," said Graham, a former Democratic senator and governor from Florida. "Now, we are dependent on people voluntarily providing us information. If they choose not to cooperate, that's their prerogative, and we don't have any redress."

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), one of the sponsors of the House bill to give the commission some teeth, is also more than a little annoyed at the Senate impasse. "While the commission is getting to the bottom of how this catastrophe happened, BP and other companies involved with the spill are still giving it the runaround," she said. "Without this critical tool – which the co-chairmen have asked for–Big Oil will keep stonewalling the investigation in the hopes they can escape being held accountable for their mistakes."

Is the whole foreclosure system teetering on the brink? It's starting to look like it, given JPMorgan Chase's big announcement on Wednesday: The bank's mortgage arm is suspending foreclosures in 23 states, the second major lender to do so in mere weeks.

For the same reason that GMAC halted evictions and foreclosure sales, JPMorgan has temporarily stopped 56,000 foreclosures in states like Florida, New Jersey, and New York, where the judicial system handles foreclosures. (As opposed to, say, California, where foreclosures are a bureaucratic matter.) JPMorgan's foreclosure freeze has to do with the use of legal filings that were signed by what defense attorneys and critics call "robo signers"—bank employees tasked with signing tens of thousands of documents without knowing what those documents even say.

According to federal rules, however, an employee signing affidavits used in a foreclosure must have "personal knowledge" of the documents. Depositions with GMAC and Chase employees have called into question the legitimacy of their foreclosure documemnts, so are being forced to stop foreclosures while they try to fix their document problem.

Here's the Times on JPMorgan's news:

In depositions taken by lawyers for embattled homeowners, the robo-signers said they or their team had signed 10,000 or more foreclosure affidavits a month.

Now that haste has come back to haunt them. The affidavits in foreclosures attest that the preparer personally reviewed the files, which those workers acknowledge they had no time to do.

GMAC and Chase say that their lapses were technical and will soon be remedied with new filings. But defense lawyers are seizing on these revelations and say they will now work to have their cases thrown out.

Beyond the relative handful of foreclosure cases being contested are many more in which the homeowner did not have legal counsel. Potentially, hundreds of thousands of cases could be in doubt.

For the American labor force, Wednesday was a brutal day in the US Senate. You can thank the Republican Party for that. In the waning days of the Senate's session, extensions of long-term unemployment insurance and an emergency fund subsidizing jobs around the country were blocked by GOP senators.

The unemployment insurance extension would've made it possible for jobless workers in states with high unemployment to collect 119 weeks of benefits. The current cut-off point is 99 weeks, the most in recent history. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) had for months pushed to add another 20 weeks onto the available 99 in states with 7.5 percent unemployment or higher. Joining her in demanding more relief for jobless workers were the "99ers," those out of work Americans who've exhausted all of their support funds and now have no safety net at all. But it was Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fl.) who stood in their way. LeMieux said Stabenow's proposal would add to the country's $13.5 trillion deficit and thus wasn't feasible:

"Without knowing how much it is going to cost and how we're going to pay for it, while we're all certainly sympathetic and want to work to make people go back to work—my home state of Florida certainly suffering with very high unemployment—we need to know how we're going to pay for it so we don't put this debt on our children and grandchildren."

Stabenow countered by saying, "The reality for us in America is that we will never get out of debt with more than 15 million people out of work." But the Michigan senator's request for unanimous approval of the extension was rejected. And with Republicans, uninterested in more jobless benefits, sure to gain seats in the House and Senate this fall, if not win one or both chambers, we've likely seen the last of Stabenow's proposal.

With the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families emergency fund—which supports job creation programs in various states—expiring on Thursday, Senate Democrats had also sought to prolong TANF's emergency fund for three months. "This small program has had a huge impact in Illinois," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Democratic Party whip. "Rather than paying people to do nothing, this program helps private companies hire the employees they need but can't quite afford." But this idea, too, was rejected, this time by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Enzi's office told the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney that the Wyoming senator opposed the continuation of the fund because it was "not sound welfare policy, has not been considered by the Senate Finance Committee, is not bipartisan, and is costly, estimated to cost approximately $500 million for a one quarter extension reported." A Democratic aide told HuffPo the TANF extension now looked to be "pretty much dead in the water." The fund's loss will certainly be felt: the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated the fund placed 240,000 unemployed Americans into jobs.

A U.S. Soldier with 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team pulls security outside a house in Chak district, Wardak province, Afghanistan, Sept. 25, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Donald Watkins

The Senate confirmed a bunch of Obama appointees before it recessed today, including a couple of Federal Reserve governors (though not Peter Diamond, who's presumably still held up in Richard Shelby hell) and such dignitaries as Nancy Lindborg as Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. Yes, really. Senate confirmation is required for the post of Assistant Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. We are all insane.

There are still loads of nominees still pending, of course, but hey — Obama can always give a few of them recess appointments. Right? In a word, no:

Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday night to a Republican demand to block President Obama from making recess appointments while Congress is out of town campaigning for the midterm elections. Democratic leaders have agreed to schedule pro-forma sessions of the Senate every week over the next six weeks, a move that will prevent Obama from making emergency appointments, according to Senate sources briefed on the talks.

....Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had threatened to send Obama’s most controversial nominees back to the president if Democrats did not agree to schedule pro-forma sessions, according to a senior GOP aide....Under Senate rules, the chamber may only carry over pending nominees during an extended recess if senators agree by unanimous consent. Senators rarely invoke this rule, but McConnell threatened to object unless Democrats agreed to prevent Obama from making recess appointments.

Now, that's some hardball from the Republicans. Was there anything Harry Reid could have done to stop it? I think so. Obama can make recess appointments if the Senate is out of session for as little as a week, while the carry-over rule applies only to recesses of 30 days or more. So if Reid had scheduled pro-forma sessions every two weeks, current nominees would have been carried over automatically but Obama still would have retained the option of making some recess appointments.

Now, maybe Obama didn't ask for that. Who knows? Or maybe I'm reading the Senate rules wrong. But if I have it right, Reid didn't have to give in to this extortion.

There's a new campaign to eliminate the I-word from the public discourse, and activists don't mean "impeachment" or "incentives." The particular piece of verbiage that has prompted the "Drop the I-Word" campaign is "illegal"—as in "illegal aliens" or "illegal immigrant." Fed up with a label they say dehumanizes its subjects, campaign promoters ColorLines.com and the Applied Research Center are sending out a pledge and a tool kit to inform people on the negative connotations of the word. "The I-Word creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear and economic anxiety, creating an easy scapegoat for complex issues, and OK-ing violence against those labeled with the word," their site says.

The campaigners' hope is that like-minded activists will want to educate their neighbors and influence the media frame. The campaign website displays close-up shots of cherub-cheeked children and adults, overlaid with the simple message "I am not an illegal"—along with a video and the endorsements of such organizations as the Nation Institute and Feministing.

The Holy See has embarked on a new mission: the fight against climate change. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI announced that Vatican City would strive to become the first carbon-neutral state. Although the Vatican's plan to purchase carbon offset credits fell through, the sovereign city-state has harnessed the power of the sun with solar panels and a solar generator, and has also made progress with energy conservation efforts. Pope Benedict has added a religious element to the climate change debate by framing the issue as a moral imperative.

To discuss these unprecedented efforts, Need to Know's Alison Stewart spoke with Mark Hopkins, an energy expert with the United Nations Foundation who has 30 years of experience in energy policy and program development. Hopkins toured the Vatican's new energy efficient facilities last year.

St. Peter's Basilica is seen in the background of a solar panel set up on the roof of the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Photo: Evandro Inetti/Zumapress.comSt. Peter's Basilica is seen in the background of a solar panel set up on the roof of the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Photo: Evandro Inetti/Zumapress.com

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.