2011 - %3, December

Our Scandalous Shortage of Teenage First Sons

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 6:38 PM EST

Over at New York, Noreen Malone provides us with "A Brief History of Teenage First Daughters." Why not teenage first sons? Well, oddly enough, there haven't been enough in recent years to bother with. Here's a list of all the teenagers to inhabit the White House in the postwar era:

  • Malia Obama (Sasha will join the ranks if Dad gets reelected)
  • Barbara and Jenna Bush (barely!)
  • Chelsea Clinton
  • Amy Carter
  • Susan and Steven Ford
  • Luci and Lynda Bird Johnson

Weird. Steven Ford is the only male child on the list. You have to go back to FDR to find a couple more. I blame humorless feminists for this indefensibly one-sided state of affairs.

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WSJ & Politico Still Horribly Inflating Size of US Chamber of Commerce

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 5:44 PM EST

The bad news for the US Chamber of Commerce is that the world now knows that Chinese hackers broke into its computer system. The good news is that its membership has suddenly increased tenfold. This is according to the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Politico, which reported yesterday that the US Chamber of Commerce has 3 million members, 2,700,000 more than it has claimed as of late.

Did a few reporters accidentally misplace a decimal point? Not likely. Most media outlets used the "3 million members" line until 2009, when I discovered that the Chamber's true membership is no more than 300,000. After a bit of back and forth, the Chamber was forced to agree with me. Many reporters continued using the wrong number until I called them on it, at which point the 300,000 figure finally won out. Or so I'd thought.

The inflated reports of the Chamber's size have allowed it to claim to speak for a broad swath of American businesses, when in reality it's a dark money outfit controlled by a few ultra-wealthy special interests. In 2009, just 16 members accounted for 55 percent of its $200 million budget. 

So here we go again. A math lesson for Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal, Tim Mak of Politico, and Gerry Smith of the Huffington Post (who should know better): 3,000,000 - 2,700,000 = the correct size of the US Chamber of Commerce.*

*If you count only dues-paying members, the true Chamber membership is probably closer to 100,000, but what's a couple hundred thousand here or there?

WATCH: MoJo Reporter Nick Baumann Explains American Rendition on Democracy Now

Thu Dec. 22, 2011 4:40 PM EST

The National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both houses of Congress and could be signed by President Barack Obama as early as this week, came under great scrutiny for its original provisions that would have legalized indefinite detention of American citizens. Before passing in Congress, however, loopholes were introduced that made these detention provisions almost pointless. But Mother Jones reporter Nick Baumann uncovered another little-acknowledged section of the approved bill that would make it easier for the government to transfer American terrorist suspects to foreign regimes and security forces.  Watch him explain on Democracy Now what this legalization of rendition could mean for American citizens: 

My Little Dog Bo

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 4:26 PM EST

I get that a blog post is just a blog post. And sometimes blog posts are nothing more than water cooler blather. But this post from Shannon Coffin perfectly encapsulates the deranged Obama hatred currently consuming the American right:

Now, this may not be the biggest story of the year, and in all likelihood, it probably isn’t even true.  But did the President really order the first dog back from Hawaii to the White House to be a prop for a Petsmart photo op? According to a report, Bo (a dog whose name is an acronym for his owner — coincidence?) [actually, yes: just coincidence –ed.] was spotted one day in Hawaii, where Mrs. Obama had gone for vacation in advance of her husband, and in a “regular guy at the pet store” photo op with Mr. Obama in Virginia the next.

Now, granted, this could be accomplished with no cost to the taxpayer, if Air Force Two (which would have flown Mrs. Obama to Hawaii) was returning home to Andrews AFB anyway.  And reports of Bo (the dog, not the President) being in Hawaii could very well prove false, thus mooting Bo-gate as an election year political scandal. But let’s say it is true. Really, Mr. President? And shouldn’t some advance staffer be fired for letting the dog get on the plane in the first place?

So let me get this straight. First, we don't even know if this is true. Second, even if it is true, it didn't cost taxpayers anything. Nevertheless, someone should be fired over it.

I recommend Obama go on TV and give the following speech:

Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Bo. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family don't resent attacks — but Bo does resent them. You know, Bo is Portuguese, and being a Portuguese water dog, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I'd left him behind on a Hawaiian island and had sent a 747 back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Iberian soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I'm constantly apologizing for America. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog!

What do you think? Pretty good, huh?

UPDATE: Guess what? Bo was never in Hawaii in the first place! Imagine that.

At least, that's what the liar-in-chief says, anyway. I suppose most of my lefty readership will be gullible enough to believe him.

Shell Oil Messes Off Two Coasts

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 3:20 PM EST

Shell's 100-mile-long oil slick off the Nigerian coast, 21 December 2011.: Envisat ASAR image analyzed by SkyTruth, data courtesy European Space Agency.Shell's 100-mile-long oil slick off the Nigerian coast, 21 December 2011. Envisat ASAR image analyzed by SkyTruth from data courtesy of the European Space Agency.Shell has admitted to spilling up to 40,000 barrels (1.4 million gallons) of crude oil into the ocean about 75 miles (120 km) off Nigeria on Wednesday. The spill occurred while it was transferring oil from a floating oil platform to a tanker.

Satellite pictures captured by independent monitors Skytruth (more here) show a 356-square-mile (923-square-km) slick approaching the oil-battered coast of the Niger Delta. All production from the Bonga field—normally about 200,000 barrels (7.2 million gallons) a day—has been suspended in the wake of the spill.

The Guardian reports on skepticism of Shell's estimates, based on its poor record in the region:

[A] leading Nigerian human rights group said Shell's figures about the quantity of oil spilled or the clean-up could not be relied on. "Shell says 40,000 barrels were spilled and production was shut but we do not trust them because past incidents show that the company consistently under-reports the amounts and impacts of its carelessness," said Nnimmo Bassey, head of Environmental Rights Action, based in Lagos. The spill, one of the worst off the coast of Nigeria in 10 years, is particularly embarrassing for Shell, coming only four months after a major UN study said it could take Shell and other oil companies 30 years and $1bn to clean spills in Ogoniland, one small part of the oil-rich delta. The company also admitted responsibility in August for two major spills in the Bodo region of the delta that took place in 2008, but has yet to pay compensation.

Shell also admitted to a spill in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday of some 13,400 barrels gallons of drilling mud mixed with synthetic oil from the Deepwater Nautilus—a sister rig to the Deepwater Horizon.

The spill occurred at the Appomattox discovery, just 26 miles southeast of last year's disastrous spill. Shell plans five new exploratory wells at Appomattox, hoping to recover more than 250 million barrels of oil... though the Houston Chronicle reports it could be weeks before the company can resume drilling in the hotly-disputed site:

The Appomattox project is at the heart of a high-stakes dispute between environmentalists and the federal government over offshore drilling... In separate cases that have since been consolidated, conservationists are arguing that the government acted prematurely in green-lighting the plan without first finishing an environmental study of the Gulf... The cases present a major test of the federal government's power to swiftly review and approve deep-water exploration plans.

 

Corn on Hardball: Whose Super-PACs Are Airing the Nastiest Ads in Iowa?

Thu Dec. 22, 2011 2:43 PM EST

David Corn and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the barrage of mudslinging GOP campaign ads that have been airing on televisions across Iowa. With less than two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, which negative ads are influencing voters, and who's paying for them to air?

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Chart of the Day: Blame Oncology!

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 2:39 PM EST

Sarah Kliff points us to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that tries to isolate the reason that Medicare payments for physician services have gone up faster than Congress predicted in the late 90s. The chart below tells the basic story. General surgery, anesthesiology, and internal medicine have basically done OK. Emergency medicine, geriatric medicine, and radiation oncology have skyrocketed.

Using this data, the authors draw the following conclusion about the Sustainable Growth Rate formula adopted by Congress (and temporarily rescinded every year when they pass the annual "doc fix"):

We do not mean to suggest that the SGR physician-payment system should be restructured according to either state or specialty. For example, the arrival of new technologies in one area of medicine may justify faster growth in some specialties relative to others. Rather, our analysis illustrates that across-the-board cuts in fees are too blunt an instrument to restrain the growth of spending on physician services. In fact, any form of target expenditures for physicians who are not part of a coherent risk-bearing organization that is responsible for patient care will produce pathologies similar to those revealed in the graphs.

Unfortunately, that sentence in bold is key. It's not clear to me that the data here justifies any conclusion at all, because it measures total spending, not the amount spent specifically on physician fees, which is the subject of SGR. If hospitals are eagerly building $100 million proton therapy centers for cancer treatment — and they are — then Medicare spending on radiation oncology is going to skyrocket. But does that mean that oncologist fees should go up? Not really.

Now, the SGR formula might well be broken regardless. Doctors set their fees to cover their overhead, and if overhead is going up faster in some areas than in others then that means fees will go up faster in some areas than in others. But I'm not sure how looking at total spending allows us to draw conclusions about that one way or the other.

A Game of Chicken That Democrats Can Finally Win

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 1:05 PM EST

House Republicans are holding President Obama's payroll tax cut hostage and are getting hammered for it. What makes them think this is a winning strategy? Dave Weigel puts it like this:

Democrats want to re-elect the president, so they’ll ultimately give up a lot to extend a tax cut and unemployment benefits....Despite how it looks right now, it doesn’t make sense to doubt them. After all, they’ve had a lot of practice at this.

National Journal's Ben Terris is even blunter:

The House, influenced by a new mentality ushered in after the 2010 wave elections, stood its ground on issues like spending and the debt ceiling all year, watching as Democrats conceded time and again. But, depending on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama act now, their intransigence on extending tax breaks for the middle class could either be another feather in their cap, or a failure for the Republican Party. Either way, the freshman class doesn’t see a downside.

There's no question that a stalemate is dangerous for Democrats. For starters, it would hurt the economy, and in an election year that hurts the president no matter whose fault it is. What's more, voters tend to blame presidents for gridlock whether it's their fault or not. After all, once Republicans make a counterproposal (and they have: a conference committee to work out a one-year deal before the end of the year), they can plausibly argue that it's the other side that's not willing to deal. Both sides are keenly aware of both of these dynamics, and they definitely point in the direction of Democrats caving yet again.

But that's exactly why I suspect Democrats won't cave. At some point, whether it's strictly rational or not, you simply have to let the other side know that you can't be pushed around forever. And this is about the best chance Dems have had to send this message in a while. Nothing is going to get shut down if they hold out, the nation's credit won't be wrecked, and even if takes until January to make a deal it won't have much effect on the economy. What's more, House Republicans have shown weakness by making sure the Senate's two-month deal is still on the table. If they'd voted it down, it would have been like ripping the steering wheel off the car, but they carefully made sure not to do this. And to make things even worse for Republicans, they're plainly losing the PR battle over this. Even the Wall Street Journal isn't on their side, and even Mitch McConnell is pretty disgusted over being double-crossed once again by the lunatics in the House GOP caucus.

So: no huge consequences for holding out; weakness and panic on the Republican side; and public (and press) opinion very clearly on the Democratic side for the first time in a while. This is the best chance Democrats have had all year to stand firm and actually profit from it. That's why I think they will.

Euphemisms in America

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 12:30 PM EST

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Economist's annual holiday issue, which is always full of good stuff. It includes a piece about euphemisms around the world, and it started off a bit oddly by suggesting, among other things, that Americans routinely call false teeth "dental appliances." Really? Well, I thought, maybe we do. What do I know about what dentures are usually called? But then I ran across this:

The richest categories would centre on cross-cultural taboos such as death and bodily functions. The latter seem to embarrass Americans especially: one can ask for the “loo” in a British restaurant without budging an eyebrow; don’t try that in New York.

Say what? We don't use the word "loo," of course, but here in Southern California I ask waiters for directions to the men's room all the time. The only thing that happens is that they.....tell me where it is. Unless this is some kind of weird New York thing, I'm pretty mystified by this. I hope the rest of their reporting on global euphemisms is more accurate than this.

Cars and the Man

| Thu Dec. 22, 2011 12:03 PM EST

From Bloomberg, after reporting that American banks are in pretty good shape these days:

Consumers also are in better financial shape, thanks to reductions in debt and the Fed’s record-low interest rates. Household-debt payments as a share of disposable income stood at 11 percent in the third quarter, the lowest since 1994 and down from a peak of 14 percent set in 2007, according to data from the central bank.

That has freed up money for spending, and the automobile industry is a beneficiary....The average age of cars and light trucks on the road today has risen to 10.6 years, Jenny Lin, senior U.S. economist at Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co., said on a Dec. 1 conference call. That’s above the seven-to-7.5 years Ballew says is the long-term average.

“We are going to see more and more of this pent-up demand realized,” Lin told analysts and reporters.

Karl Smith keeps telling me that this is what's going to spark a strong recovery in 2012. At some point, all those cars just have to be replaced, and that spending will drive improvement in the economy. Ditto for pent-up demand for houses and apartments.

I really want to believe this. I do, I do, I do. But with wages stagnant, credit tight, unemployment high, and the world economy flatlining, where's the money going to come from? I want to have faith in Smithianism, but my faith is tested whenever I open a newspaper — and I open a newspaper a dozen times every day. It is a stern and demanding creed, Smithianism is.