2013 - %3, January

Corn on MSNBC: Obama's 23 Executive Actions on Gun Control

Wed Jan. 16, 2013 6:01 PM EST

This morning, President Obama unveiled his 23 executive actions for reducing gun violence after Newtown. With many of these recommendations sure to rankle the gun lobby, congressional approval is far from certain. Gun control needs to be a values issue, not a wonky, policy issue argues Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn on MSNBC's NOW with Alex Wagner. (Read more of our special report on gun laws and mass shootings here.)

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Roe at 40, in 2 Charts

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 5:48 PM EST

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has new polling data out about Roe v. Wade ahead of the decision's 40th anniversary next week. Here are two charts that say quite a bit.

The first shows public support for the decision. I've heard, again and again, that the pro-Roe crowd is "losing." (Look no further than the cover of the new issue of Time for the latest example.) But support for the decision has held pretty firm, Pew found:

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Millennials, meanwhile, apparently think "Roe" is something you do in a boat. Less than half of them could correctly identify it as a case dealing with abortion rights:

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Congressional Democrats Unveil New Bills to Battle Big-Money Donors

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 5:14 PM EST
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) recently introduced legislation to entice candidates to raise a greater percentage of money from small donors.

On Wednesday, Democrats in Congress took their first big step of the 113th Congress toward staunching the flow of money into US political campaigns. A group of House Democrats unveiled a trio of political money-themed bills, each proposing to establish new public campaign financing that would reward candidates for hauling in lots of small donations instead of fewer, larger ones, by matching small-dollar donations with public funds and tightening the rules governing super-PACs.

The 2012 presidential election marked the first time since the post-Watergate creation of public financing system that neither party's candidate accepted public money to fund his campaign. And little surprise why: Had they accepted public financing, Obama and Romney would've received a paltry $45.6 million for the primary season and $91.2 million each for the general election. Instead Obama raised roughly $1.2 billion overall and Romney raised more than $900 million.

In addition to revamping the public financing of federal elections to encourage more courting of small donors, the "Empowering Citizens Act," introduced by Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), would beef up rules banning coordination between super-PACs and campaigns, which critics say aren't strong enough right now. Congressional Democrats point to super-PACs such as Restore Our Future, which spent $152 million solely to elect Romney, and Priorities USA Action, which spent $74 million to elect Obama, as evidence of the blurry lines between candidate-specific super-PACs and the candidates' campaign. For instance, Romney appeared at a fundraiser for Restore Our Future, and top Obama advisers such as David Plouffe and David Axelrod spoke at Priorities events. (Conservatives dismiss the notion that this constitutes coordination and say Democrats just want to restrict the speech of outside groups with whom they don't agree.)

Another of the new bills, the "Grassroots Democracy Act" offered by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), would create a small-donor matching system as well as a "People's Fund," which would send additional federal money to candidates in races flooded with outside money and, in Sarbanes' words, "the voices of grassroots candidates are being drowned out." The third bill, the "Fair Elections Now Act" introduced by Reps. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Me.), would provide a 5-to-1 match of donations of $100 or less from in-state donors in the primary and general elections.

In the weeks ahead, House Democrats say, they plan to hash out a compromise bill that incorporates what they believe are the best ideas of the three bills introduced on Wednesday. Of course, with Republicans in control of the House, any legislation aimed at reforming money in politics is dead-on-arrival. But with the ebb and flow of Congressional control, Democrats will inevitably find themselves back in charge of the House in two or four or six years, and when they do, Democrats and reform advocates say they want a tough, comprehensive campaign finance bill ready to grab off the shelf and put into play.

The NRA's Anti-Obama Ad Is Not Only Tasteless But Also Totally Unrealistic

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 5:09 PM EST

Some people are calling the NRA's new anti-Obama ad a thinly veiled threat against the president's children. I doubt that this was its intent, but nonetheless, it's well beyond poor taste to use Obama's kids to make a point. (And it's absurd on its face: Like Jenna and Barbara Bush before them, Sasha and Malia get protection at school, as do all US presidents' children. It's called the Secret Service.) Between this and the Shooting Range app recently released by the NRA on iOS devices, the lobbying group's public-relations wing is failing miserably.

Now let's take a look at the substance of the ad itself: The NRA wants to staff every school in America with armed guards, and the president is "an elitist hypocrite" for being skeptical of the idea.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009-10 there were 98,817 public schools, 33,366 private schools, and 6,742 two-year and four-year colleges in America. Assuming that many of the colleges and at least some of the schools already have security and that private schools would require private funding for private security, that still leaves somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 schools with no armed security staff.

Hiring an armed guard for each of these would be enormously expensive, especially since these guards would need extensive background checks and would require expensive equipment and training, as well as benefits, pensions, and so forth. While many Americans have indeed expressed support for this sort of measure in recent polling, the public often supports expensive plans with little attention to the cost.

With its argument for getting rid of all "gun-free zones" in the country—which relies on fallacy rather than real data—the NRA has also recommended staffing these 100,000 public schools with armed volunteers: Retired police officers or ex-military types who would bring their guns to schools across the country each day—vigilantes of a sort, with the power of life and death just a trigger finger away.

Of course, assuming we could rally 100,000 full-time volunteer guards (or many more part-time guards) and then vet each of them properly, one has to ask whether we'd trust our nations' children in their hands. Would these retirees themselves pose some possible danger? Would they be able to stop a shooter should one attack? The armed security at Columbine and Virginia Tech proved incapable of stopping those mass shootings, and shooting rampages have rarely if ever been stopped this way.

The NRA Just Doesn't Know When to Quit

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 2:40 PM EST

Will it be possible to pass significant new gun legislation? The odds are long, but one thing that might help it along is the fact that the NRA has become so batshit crazy over the past couple of decades. Every time Wayne LaPierre's spittle-flecked ranting shows up on your TV screen, I'd guess the gun control movement picks up another percentage point of support. Ditto for every time some nutball decides to sling an AR-15 over his shoulder and wander through a mall "just to show that he can." And ditto again when some backbench member of Congress gets a bit of airtime for fulminating against the UN's black helicopters.

Today's case in point is on the right. “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the NRA asks. Why does Obama think Sasha and Malia deserve Secret Service protection but your children don't? He's a hypocrite!

The NRA must be desperate to break one of the fundamental laws of politics: you never involve the president's kids. Even Rush learned that lesson. But they just don't know when to quit. The NRA has gone so far around the bend that it doesn't seem to occur to them anymore that stuff like this disgusts most normal Americans, and it's something that even their allies in Congress can't support.

The NRA is at once our bitterest enemy and our best friend when it comes to gun regulation. If they keep producing stuff like this, they just might lose this battle after all.

The Sad Story of Fish Oil and Small Sample Sizes

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 1:22 PM EST

Keith Humphreys passes along the sad story today of fish oil's journey from miracle cure to nothingburger. The chart below shows the evolution of research on Omega-3 supplements over the past 17 years, where a small "relative risk" number indicates a beneficial effect and 1.0 indicates no effect at all:

Humphreys explains how this happens:

When there were only a little data available, fish oil looked like manna from heaven. But with new studies and more data, the beneficial effect has shrunk to almost nothing. The current best estimate of relative risk (bottom row of table) is 0.96, barely below 1.0. And the “confidence interval” (the range of numbers in parentheses), which is an indicator of how reliable the current estimate is, actually runs to a value slightly greater than 1.0.

Why does this happen? Small studies do a poor job of reliably estimating the effects of medical interventions. For a small study (such as Sacks’ and Leng’s early work in the top two rows of the table) to get published, it needs to show a big effect — no one is interested in a small study that found nothing. It is likely that many other small studies of fish oil pills were conducted at the same time of Sacks’ and Leng’s, found no benefit and were therefore not published. But by the play of chance, it was only a matter of time before a small study found what looked like a big enough effect to warrant publication in a journal editor’s eyes.

Caveat lector. Don't believe everything you read, especially if there's only one study and it has a small sample size. It's still possible that fish oil has a slight beneficial effect, but it's unlikely. Spend your money on something else.

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Obama Introduces Hopeless Set of Gun Proposals

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 12:51 PM EST

President Obama announced his response to the Newtown massacre today:

At a White House event at noon, Mr. Obama announced plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and new gun trafficking laws to crack down on the spread of weapons across the country.

This is mostly just a service post. This is the big news of the day, so it probably deserves a placeholder that gives everyone a chance to comment. I don't have much to say about it myself, though. It's about what everyone expected, and unless someone tells me how this proposal—or even the merest shadow of this proposal—passes the House, I don't see how there's any chance of action. But that may just be some lingering pessimism caused by yelling at my computer for most of the morning, so I'll wait for others to chime in before I give up on this entirely.

Obama also released a set of 23 tyranny-breeding executive orders today, including the nomination of an ATF director. Clearly, this isn't the America it used to be. You can read the full set of executive orders here.

UPDATE: OK, here's a more optimistic take. Greg Sargent argues that "for all the focus on the politics of the assault ban, comprehensive improvement of the background check system is a higher priority for gun reform advocates, and is also a more achievable one." And Robert Spitzer argues that the precedent of Columbine provides a ray of hope:

Within weeks, Congress was enmeshed in consideration of a bill requiring background checks for all sales at gun show, a bar on unlicensed Internet gun sales and tougher gun crime penalties, among other provisions. Despite open hostility from the Republican leaders who controlled Congress, they yielded to public pressure — amplified by support from then-President Clinton — and brought bills to the floor of both houses. The measure passed in the Senate, but eventually lost in the House after tumultuous consideration. Republican leaders would have preferred to let the bills die quietly in committee, but yielded in the face of public outcry.

The bill didn't actually pass, but House leaders didn't refuse to even allow a vote. Perhaps Newtown will have the same effect, and perhaps there are still a few dozen Republicans who are willing to join with most Democrats to seriously tighten up background checks. Maybe. In any case, this might not be quite as impossible as I imagine.

Obama Announces 23 Executive Actions to Limit Gun Violence: Here's the List

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 12:49 PM EST

President Barack Obama unveiled his proposal for responding to gun violence Wednesday, issuing a list of 23 executive actions he intends to take to try to reduce gun violence in the United States. Many of these steps, such as appointing a director of the ATF and improving background checks, resemble those gun control advocates mentioned to me and my colleague Tim Murphy earlier this week. The 23 executive actions can happen right away, but other parts of Obama's plan, such as a new assault weapons ban, will require congressional approval.

Here's a list of the executive actions Obama has said he has taken or will take:

1. Issue a presidential memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.

2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.

3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.

4. Direct the attorney general to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.

5. Propose rule making to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.

6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.

7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.

8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).

9. Issue a presidential memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.

10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement.

11. Nominate an ATF director.

12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.

13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.

14. Issue a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

15. Direct the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies.

16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.

17. Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.

18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.

19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship, and institutions of higher education.

20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental-health services that Medicaid plans must cover.

21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.

22. Commit to finalizing mental-health parity regulations.

23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.

Most of these recommendations, such as getting the CDC involved in research on gun violence, will rankle the gun lobby. (The National Rifle Association has long opposed such research.) Obama has, however, included ideas from gun control critics in his plan. Shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre gave a rambling speech in which he blamed violent movies and video games for gun violence and called for more armed guards in schools. The White House proposal not only includes more armed protection of public schools, but also directs the CDC specifically to "explore the impact of violent media images and video games" on gun violence. 

 

Is the Housing Bubble Back?

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

Yesterday I read a post by Karl Smith suggesting we might already be headed into a second housing bubble. His argument was a little convoluted, though, so I filed it in the back of my brain and continued with my day. This morning, though, I read this in the LA Times:

Southern California's housing market ended the year with sharp gains, rounding out the first solid year of sustained improvement after nearly five years of real estate malaise....The region's median home price registered a sizable 19.6% pop in December compared with the same month last year.

...."There is no possible way that number can be sustained nor should anybody look at that as a long-term trend," said Stuart Gabriel, director of the Ziman Center for Real Estate at UCLA. "We haven't shifted from bust back to bubble, and nobody should think we have, and nor likely will we."

Hmmm. A 20 percent gain? Sounds pretty bubblish to me! I guess time will tell whether Smith or Gabriel has the better of this story.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 11:19 AM EST

I'm having a computer meltdown this morning. Apologies. Posting will resume as soon as I figure out what's going on.

UPDATE: Well, that was damn peculiar. But everything appears to be fixed now after a morning of installing, uninstalling, reinstalling, and moving files around one by one. Time will tell whether I really recovered everything or not.