2013 - %3, January

Glenn Beck Building Ayn Rand-Inspired Utopia

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 5:29 PM EST

Glenn Beck has a dream. On Thursday, the former Fox News host, gold bug, survival-seed guru, movie star, and bestselling author unveiled plans for a new planned community—inspired by the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged—to be built at an undisclosed location somewhere in the United States*.

No, really:

Glenn believes that he can bring the heart and the spirit of Walt's early Disneyland ideas into reality. Independence, USA wouldn't be about rides and merchandise, but would be about community and freedom. The Marketplace would be a place where craftmen and artisan could open and run real small businesses and stores. The owners and tradesmen could hold apprenticeships and teach young people the skills and entrepreneurial spirit that has been lost in today’s entitlement state.

There would also be an Media Center, where Glenn's production company would film television, movies, documentaries, and more. Glenn hoped to include scripted television that would challenge viewers without resorting to a loss of human decency. He also said it would be a place where aspiring journalists would learn how to be great reporters.

Across the lake, there would be a church modelled after The Alamo which would act as a multi-denominational mission center. The town will also have a working ranch where visitors can learn how to farm and work the land.

Independence would also be home to a Research and Development center where people would come to learn, innovate, educate, and create. There would be a theme park for people to recharge and have fun with their families.

People would also have the option to live in Independence, with a residential area where people of different incomes could all come together and be neighbors.

Beck estimates the city-theme-park will cost about $2 billion to build, or roughly .002 trillion-dollar platinum coins, or .178 Fox News blue whales.

Correction: This post originally stated that the city would be in Texas. Beck hasn't specified which state he'll build Independence in.

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Australia's Climate Inferno "Encroaching on Entirely New Territory"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 4:38 PM EST
Cooma Fire
Smoke near Cooma, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 New South Wales Rural Fire Service

Australia's top government-appointed climate commissioner says this week's heatwave is occurring amid record-breaking weather around the world. "This has been a landmark event for me," Professor Tim Flannery told Climate Desk from his home in Melbourne. "When you start breaking records, and you do it consistently, and you see it over and over again, that is a good indication there's a shift underway—this is not just within the normal variation of things."

Flannery is perhaps best known in the US for his 2005 book, The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change; Downunder, he was named Australian of the Year in 2007, and appointed chief climate commissioner in 2011 by the current Labor government, which tasked him with communicating climate science to the Australian public (a government-funded job that may well sound unimaginable to American readers).

Flannery says the harsh weather is a sign of things to come: "What we've seen is the bell curve shift to the hot end. The number of very hot days is increasing quite dramatically. But we're also encroaching on entirely new territory."

That new territory involves record-breaking temperatures. The number of consecutive days where the national average maximum temperature topped 102.2°F (39°C) was broken in the last week, almost doubling the previous record set in 1973. There are now new first- and third-place winners for highest temperatures on Australia's books, too. The number of record high temperatures have outstripped the number of record low temperatures at a ratio 3-to-1 over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Meterology.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery Mark Coulson, 5th World Conference of Science Journalists.

Several fires are still burning in Tasmania, Australia's lush island state, where the crisis began last week. The cost of the destruction of 200 buildings there is pegged at $A50 million ($US52.7m), according to the Australian newspaper. Luckily—perhaps shockingly given the extent of damage—lives were spared.

Statewide total fire bans remain in force across the weekend in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), where at last count more than 95 fires are still burning, with 18 out of control. NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that new fires on Saturday might be "beyond the ability for fire services to suppress."

And don't think there's any rest from wild weather. Not content which just record-breaking heat, the skies are now hurling Narelle—a category 4 severe tropical storm comparable to a strong Category 3 hurricane—at the North West of the vast continent. Communities living along a coastline roughly as long as the stretch from New York to North Carolina are bracing for gale force winds and heavy rains.

Cyclone Narelle
Tropical Cyclone Narelle off the West Australian coast Australian Bureau of Meterology

"There is no doubt," Flannery said, "that climate change is playing a significant roll in this. If this was just one record-breaking event you might write it off as a statistical anomaly. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing records falling around the world."

Flannery told Climate Desk the Australian government has confirmed he will hold his seat for the next two years, but it might not play out that way. The conservative opposition party is likely to erode the Climate Commission if elected, something that will be decided by a deepy divided electorate towards the end of this year. The election promises to be fought over the government's carbon tax. Opposition leader Tony Abbott famously made a "blood pledge" to repeal the tax which will lead to a carbon trading scheme.

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 January 2013

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 4:00 PM EST

Last week we were collectively musing about how to get a wider variety of cat + quilt photos, and one suggestion was to make a tent out of the quilt and just wait for Domino to burrow under it. As you can see, this worked like a charm. Especially during chilly Southern California winters (low 60s!), Domino is a big fan of burrowing under quilts.

The design of this week's quilt is "Yellow Brick Road," by Atkinson Designs. It uses fat quarters of tone-on-tone fabrics, with a contrasting border and backing. It's machine pieced and machine quilted.

Understanding the Debt Ceiling Showdown: Default vs. "Default"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 3:17 PM EST

If congressional Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling, does this mean the United States will default? Brit Hume says no. Bob Somerby wonders if he's right:

Is is true? is our use of the term “default” just a bit of scare talk?....Millions of people are being told that we won’t go into true “default” if the debt limit stays where it is—and millions more have no idea what the term “default” means.

This is something that's the object of some slippery language lately. If the debt ceiling isn't raised, then government spending will be limited to the amount that it brings in via tax receipts. Give or take a bit, this amounts to $200 billion per month. The president will have to decide how to spend this money, and everyone agrees that his first priority has to be interest payments to bondholders, which comes to only about $20 billion per month. In other words, there's no chance at all that the United States will go into default in the usual financial meaning of the word.

However, if, like Paul Krugman, you talk about the United States "defaulting on many of its obligations," you're using the word in a more everyday sense. The federal budget allocates money for various purposes, and there are lots of people who are counting on getting that money. But if spending is limited to $200 billion per month, some of them won't.

So: we won't default on bond payments, but we will "default" on some portion of federal spending that's already been authorized.

Krugman calls the Republican debt ceiling threat "vile." If we hit the debt ceiling, he says, "This would have disastrous effects on financial markets, the economy, and our standing in the world. Yet Republicans are threatening to trigger this disaster unless they get spending cuts that they weren’t able to enact through normal, Constitutional means. Republicans go wild at this analogy, but it’s unavoidable. This is exactly like someone walking into a crowded room, announcing that he has a bomb strapped to his chest, and threatening to set that bomb off unless his demands are met."

Is this right? I'd say so. If Republicans want to play hardball on budget cutting, they have a perfectly normal, well-accepted way of doing that: during the budget process. If they don't get their way on spending, they can refuse to pass a budget. This would require the president to start shutting down government programs, which is exactly what he'll have to do if the debt limit isn't raised.

So why is one vile while the other is merely reckless? That's simple: In the case of a budget showdown, Republicans would be refusing to authorize new spending. But in the case of the debt ceiling, Republicans would be explicitly refusing to pay bills they've already run up. This is the action of a banana republic, not the most powerful nation on earth, one whose reliability and good word is crucial to the orderly workings of global financial markets.

It's one thing to disagree about which programs should be funded and the level of that funding. That's ordinary politics. Shutting down the government over that disagreement may be reckless, hardball politics, but that's all it is. But refusing to pay bills for goods and services you've already purchased? Refusing to pay out money to individuals and businesses who you've previously promised to pay and who are counting on those payments because, after all, whose word is better than the United States government? That's a whole different thing. And that's vile.

3 Years After the Earthquake, Haiti Is Still in Shambles

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 3:02 PM EST

The devastating Haiti earthquake that killed 217,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless happened three years ago Saturday. For a year or so, the drama captured plenty of headlines and human interest; our own human rights reporter, Mac McClelland, traveled to Port-au-Prince to document the hazards that befell Haitians and the morass that doomed much of the nation's inbound aid. This year's anniversary hasn't generated much media attention, but that's not because everything in the island nation is fixed. Almost 360,000 people remain in tent camps, and the country's infrastructure is still in shambles. A lot of that is due to the failures of the international community.

Only half of the $13.34 billion in international aid allocated for Haiti reconstruction has been disbursed. And of that, only a small portion has gone to "reconstruction," strictly defined. Instead, the New York Times reported in December, "much of the so-called recovery aid was devoted to costly current programs, like highway building and HIV prevention, and to new projects far outside the disaster zone."

GOP Rep.'s Gold Standard for Gun Stores Was Sued for Negligence

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 2:47 PM EST

On Thursday, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) stopped by the Cobb County chamber of commerce to explain his views on gun control. But it wasn't just any gun store—Gingrey, the Marietta Daily Journal reported, "took the time to praise Adventure Outdoors owner Jay Wallace as the gold standard for running a responsible gun retail business."

The problem: Adventure Outdoors is anything but. In 2006, New York City sued the firm for negligence in preventing its guns from falling into the hands of criminals. Between 1996 and 2000 alone, 256 guns sold at Adventure Outdoors were connected to crimes—21 in New York City alone. "ATF has established that a very small percentage of retail gun dealers—about 1%—are responsible for approximately 57% of the illegally-possessed guns nationwide," the city explained in its lawsuit. "The Defendants are among this small group of gun dealers who arm illegal gun possessors. As such, the Defendants cause, contribute to and maintain a public nuisance within the City of New York."

The city specifically singled out Adventure Outdoors for selling guns to what are known as "straw purchasers." Based in part on the work of two investigators the city hired, the complaint charged that "upon information and belief, Defendants intentionally or negligently sell handguns to prohibited persons through 'strawman' purchases, in which an individual legally able to buy a handgun purchases the gun from a licensed gun dealer, intending to transfer it immediately to a prohibited person."

Here's the lawsuit:

 

 

A default judgment was issued against Adventure Outdoors in 2008, and in 2011, a federal court ordered that an independent outside expert be appointed to oversee the company's sales practices and ensure it didn't sell guns to straw purchasers (a federal appeals court later struck a portion of the "special master" mandate, but still subjected the company to an outside monitor*).

Gingrey's comments came at the same chamber of commerce breakfast in which he defended his former colleague Todd Akin's suggestion that women who have been raped have special mechanism to prevent a pregnancy, citing his own experience as an OBGYN. Gingrey is chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus.

h/t James Carter IV

*I've clarified the language here.

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Texas Joins the School Testing Backlash

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 1:43 PM EST

Abby Rapoport reports that it's not just teachers unions that are getting tired of the endless high-stakes testing regimen in public schools today:

While most of the national anti-testing rhetoric comes from teachers' groups and others associated with the left, in Texas rural Republicans took the lead. During the 2011 session, even as lawmakers were gutting education spending, one-third of the state House members, mostly Republicans, supported an amendment from Representative Larry Taylor of the small town of Sherman to get a waiver from the Department of Education and suspend testing for the next two school years.

In a way, I'm mostly just surprised that this has taken so long. I'm not resolutely anti-test myself: It strikes me as a good idea to collect at least some amount of consistent, quantitative data if we want to understand how well our schools are doing and which educational reforms produce the best results. At the same time, the sheer magnitude of our test-taking culture has become breathtaking over the past couple of decades. Standardized tests should be a modest part of the school curriculum, not a frantic, neverending race that engulfs the entire culture of teaching.

Maybe everyone is starting to get that message. It was George W. Bush's Texas that led the way in the testing craze, and it would be appropriate if it were Texas that led the way in reining it in.

Bobby Jindal Wants to Rob From the Poor to Give to the Rich

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 1:03 PM EST

Via Ed Kilgore, I see that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal wants to raise taxes on the poor as a way of funding big tax cuts on the rich. He doesn't put it that way explicitly, of course ("It's time to...foster an environment where businesses want to invest and create good-paying jobs"), but it's hardly buried in the fine print, either. Basically, he wants to increase the sales tax (which hits the poor and middle class heavily) in order to eliminate income and corporate taxes (which are paid largely by the well-off).

Is this because Louisiana's rich folks are being soaked and need relief? Not really. According to data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poor in Louisiana currently pay about 10% of their income in state taxes. The rich pay about 5%.

Too much! Bobby Jindal won't be happy until that ratio is more like the 10:1 that God intended. Welcome to some of that fresh new thinking from the up-and-coming young stars of the Republican Party that you've been hearing so much about lately.

"Zero Dark Thirty" Filmmakers Start a Debate, But Don't Participate

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 12:42 PM EST
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

The filmmakers responsible for Zero Dark Thirty, the journalistic-but-non-journalistic thriller about the CIA's 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, say they are proud of the debate triggered by the film's controversial depiction of torture as crucial to discovering the Al Qaeda leader. But at the film's Washington premiere, they decided not to participate in that discussion.

"Mark and I are truly awed by the remarkable national conversation that this movie has spurred. As filmmakers, nothing is more flattering, humbling, and quite frankly, somewhat intimidating," director Kathryn Bigelow told the audience at the Newseum Tuesday night. Yet she didn't stick around for any of that "remarkable conversation," absconding before the film started and missing the post-screening panel discussion. During that panel, screenwriter Mark Boal boasted that the heated argument over the film and torture are "a compliment to the work that Kathryn did—that she created a film that's so complex, and so dense, and so multifaceted."

But Boal, too, fielded no queries from a well-informed audience of journalists, government officials, policy advocates. At the event, former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, now the film industry's top lobbyist, called the film "courageous." Yet after Boal answered a few chummy queries from ABC News' Martha Raddatz, burly men in suits blocked the entrance to the stage and later escorted the courageous screenwriter to a black SUV waiting outside.

U.S. Fiscal Policy: Pretty Darn Prudent, Actually

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 12:31 PM EST

Howard Schneider sums up some recent research from the IMF:

It's official. The United States is a "profligate" nation, according to IMF staff research that examines which countries respond to increases in public debt by trimming their fiscal sails. And that makes the nation surprisingly rare in the developed world....In theory, a "prudent" nation would trim deficits or accumulate surpluses as overall debt grows, while a profligate one would not....By this methodology, the United States is one of only a few profligate countries in the developed world, where even big social-welfare states like Denmark earned a "prudent" label for overall fiscal management. The Danes may spend a lot on social protection. But they collect the taxes to pay for it.

However, there's an asterisk here, and it's a pretty big one. From the paper:

In the case of the United States from 1950-2011, this procedure finds that dropping the years 2008-2011 is sufficient to return to a positive and significant slope coefficient.

In other words, generally speaking the United States is a prudent nation, cutting its spending when its public debt gets large. However, our response to the 2008 financial crisis was large enough to turn a fairly large prudence score into a modestly-sized profligate score. In fact, between 1950-2007, the United States was one of the most prudent countries in the authors' database.

This is actually sort of reassuring. It means that during relatively normal times, the United States tends to manage its finances fairly well. But during a massive recession marked by skyrocketing unemployment and a liquidity trap, we were willing to pull out the stops and spend money regardless of its effect on the debt. We might not have done this as much as we should have, or for as long as we should have, but at least we did it.