2013 - %3, February

World Leaders React to North Korea Nuclear Test

| Tue Feb. 12, 2013 3:06 PM EST

North Korea conducted a third nuclear test on Tuesday, the first since the country's leader Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011. Though it is still unclear whether the test was successful, experts say it could bring the country closer to its goal of building nuclear-tipped missiles designed to strike the US. Official state media characterized the test as a response to US hostility, and warned of "second and third measures of greater intensity" in the future if Washington doesn't back down. (The UN imposed sanctions on the country after a December 2012 rocket launch that the UN and Washington said was a cover for a banned missile test.)

The United Nations Security Council called the test, which is in defiance of existing UN resolutions, "a clear threat to international peace and security," and said it would "begin work immediately" on further punitive measures against Pyongyang.

The test also prompted an outcry from leaders around the world: Here are some of them, via CNN:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 12, 2013

Tue Feb. 12, 2013 1:20 PM EST

Tahachee Appodaca, a Wasco, Calif., native and platoon sergeant with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, orders his Marines to push forward during company-sized assault training, as part of Exercise Iron Fist 2013, aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Jan. 31, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Christopher O’Quin.

 

 

 

Fox News Makes Odd Use of Lesbians Kissing

| Tue Feb. 12, 2013 8:21 AM EST
Traditional gender roles get an ironic twist in a Fox News column.

The culture wars are as American as apple pie. According to Suzanne Venker, author of "How to Choose a Husband and Make Peace with Marriage," one of the more pressing issues in modern culture is the dissolution of traditional gender roles. The culprit, Venker argued in a recent column for Fox News, is feminism.

"Feminism didn't result in equality between the sexes," Venker wrote, "it resulted in mass confusion. Today, men and women have no idea who's supposed to do what."

The most immediate irony of the piece as originally published was its inclusion of an image of a newlywed lesbian couple, apparently by accident. The photo was of Lela McArthur and Stephanie Figarelle of Anchorage, Alaska, according to Buzzfeed. The image has since been removed, but Venker's arguments against sexual equality deserve their own response.

Housekeeping Note

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 10:50 PM EST

I'm flying up to San Francisco tonight, and I'll be spending the next couple of days plotting global domination at MoJo's chrome and glass world headquarters on Sutter Street. Blogging will be either light or nonexistent depending on how well the planning goes, the vagaries of Wi-Fi, and the fluctuations of my mood. I'll probably have something about the State of the Union address tomorrow, but no promises beyond that. I'll be back on Thursday.

How to Make Money by Screwing Your Customers

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 6:57 PM EST

The mortgage servicing industry has always been a bit of a black hole. Servicers aren't the folks who make loans, package loans, or invest in loans. Rather, they're the folks who collect payments and handle the routine administrative work after loans have been packaged up and sold off as securities. Basically, they do the gruntwork.

So they had little to do with creating the mortgage crisis of the aughts. However, despite their unglamorous middleman role, they've been one of the chief obstacles to fixing the mortgage crisis over the past few years. The reason is fairly simple: they make more money by screwing borrowers who are in trouble than they do by trying to come up with solutions. David Dayen explains:

In general, servicers are paid through a percentage of the unpaid principal balance on a loan. This creates problems when a borrower gets into trouble and can no longer afford their payments. There are many modifications to help a borrower in such a bind, the most sustainable, successful type being direct reductions of the principal, for obvious reasons. But forgiving principal cuts directly into servicer profits by cutting the unpaid principal balance, so most servicers shy away from it. Moreover, servicers collect structured fees — such as late fees — which make it profitable to put a borrower in default and keep him there. And foreclosures don’t hurt a servicer, because they make back their money owed, along with all fees, in a foreclosure sale, even before the investors for whom they service the loan. The investors take whatever losses result from a foreclosure; the servicer makes out just fine.

So there you have it. Servicers don't like simple principal reduction because that reduces their fees. Conversely, servicers do like it when borrowers get jerked around a lot because that increases their fees. And if it all ends up in foreclosure? That may be too bad for the investors, but servicers make lots of money from foreclosures. The bottom line is simple: servicers do best when distressed borrowers are (a) milked for a while and then (b) foreclosed on.

So naturally, that's what usually happens. The new Consumer Finance Protection Board has recently taken a crack at reforming this obviously absurd situation, but they probably don't have the legal authority to do much about it. However, David suggests that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac probably do. Unfortunately, they aren't doing anything:

The FHFA/HUD servicer compensation process is showing few signs of life. They announced the initiative two years ago, and released a discussion paper in September 2011, inviting public comment on a couple broadly rendered alternatives, including a “fee for service” model where servicers would get paid a flat rate for performing loans, presumably encouraging them to keep the loans current. As is typical for these regulations, practically all of the public input on the discussion draft came from the mortgage industry. They objected to changing the system before they had new requirements in place, like the 2012 National Mortgage Settlement and the CFPB servicing standards. In addition, they made the usual complaints about undermining the market and increasing costs for borrowers.

Perhaps as a result, basically nothing has been done on servicer compensation since the fall of 2011. Officially, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan calls the joint project a “work in progress.” An FHFA spokesman told me that “consideration of the servicing compensation issue will continue as FHFA moves forward with the Build portion of the Strategic Plan for the Conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” And in a speech last December, FHFA Acting Director Ed DeMarco remarked that they “have already completed a substantial amount of groundwork on this subject,” and that “it remains for me an important part of the work ahead.”

This has long been one of the most frustrating aspects of the mortgage crisis. Everyone understands that the incentives at work in the servicing industry are completely screwy, but no one has both the authority and the political will to change it. It's sort of a nutshell version of our entire political system these days.

Michigan Republicans Really, Really Want to Allow Concealed Guns in Schools

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 4:39 PM EST

Damn the veto, full speed ahead for more guns in schools!

That may as well be the rallying cry for some Republican lawmakers in Michigan. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed legislation in mid-December that would have allowed concealed guns on the grounds of schools, churches, and daycare facilities. But State Rep. Greg MacMaster (R) is undeterred. He recently introduced the "Michigan School Protection Act," which would allow licensed teachers and administrators to carry concealed pistols at school, the Associated Press reports. MacMaster, whose legislation has the support of numerous state GOP lawmakers, told the AP that his bill would let schools decide how to implement on-campus concealed carry policies. The speaker of the Michigan House, Republican Jase Bolger, has yet to embrace the new bill, saying lawmakers need to "take a breath" before moving ahead on the measure. But Bolger has also questioned the wisdom of making schools gun-free zones, suggesting he might be open to MacMaster's legislation.

On December 13, the day before the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature approved concealed-carry legislation for schools, churches, and daycare centers. Post-Newtown, citizens barraged Snyder's office with emails and phone calls urging him to veto the bill, which he did. "While we must vigilantly protect the rights of law-abiding firearm owners, we also must ensure the right of designated public entities to exercise their best discretion in matters of safety and security," Snyder said in a statement. "These public venues need clear legal authority to ban firearms on their premises if they see fit to do so."

Snyder did sign two other gun-related measures at the time, one streamlining the background check process for handgun purchases and another easing the sale of rifles and shotguns between buyers and sellers in states bordering Michigan. During a recent visit to an elementary school, Snyder sounded bearish on the idea of more guns in schools. "I don't view dwelling on guns as the big conversation we should be having," he told MLive.com. "If you look at the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the issues there, one of the big things we need to look at is the issue of mental health, and the issues of how do we help kids that have needs and different challenges in their life."

MacMaster's isn't the only divisive gun bill introduced by Michigan GOPers lately. In mid-January, 13 Republican state senators offered the "Michigan Firearms Freedom Act," a measure that would exempt guns or ammunition made in Michigan from federal regulations. Michigan joined nearly three-dozen other states in introducing such legislation. The measure is, for now, a purely symbolic one: There are no gun or ammo makers in Michigan.

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In the Context of "1,000 Years" of Warfare, Drones Are "More Humane"

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 3:59 PM EST

Last week, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) gave a sort of backhanded defense of the Obama administration's controversial targeted killing program.

"To be honest, I believe that drones are a lot more civilized than what we used to do, you know, when Sherman shelled Atlanta or when the Allies firebombed Dresden in World War II, it was all collateral damage. It was virtually all civilians. And that was the way of war until very recently," King said on Friday's episode of MSNBC's Morning Joe. "The drones, although there is some collateral damage, basically is a very smart artillery shell...[I]f you put it in a context of 1,000 years of war, I think it's actually a more humane weapon because it can be targeted to specific enemies and specific people."

Of course, that doesn't have much to do with drone critics' actual arguments, and Sen. King was wise enough to point that out during his interview: "Now, I do think there’s a problem...about targeting Americans. There is this little item of the Fifth Amendment that says no person shall be denied life, liberty or property without due process of law."

But King's initial point is unimpeachably true: When you look at the history of warfare between 1013 A.D. and now, it's hard to come to the conclusion that drone warfare is any more barbaric or indiscriminate than what humanity has become used to over the past ten centuries. For instance:

when the normans invaded ireland in 1169

norman invasion ireland
Land was taken, the regime was changed, and much brutality was exacted with swords. Via the University of Alabama at Birmingham

 

 When Pope Innocent III launched the tw0-decade Albigensian Crusade

cathars crusade albigensian crusade
It's this particularly horrific crusade that gave birth to the phrase, "Kill them all; let God sort them out." Via Wikimedia Commons

 

that time the Qing Dynasty put down the Taiping Rebellion between 1850 and 1864

taiping rebellion
20 million killed, mostly civilians. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

when america went to the philippines...

philippine american war atrocities
Click here for a rundown of American atrocities during the war. Via New York Journal

 

napalm

napalm vietnam us
Napalm during the Vietnam War has a remarkably ugly legacy.

 

US-backED death squads

el mozote massacre memorial


IRAQ

iraq war
Staff Sgt. Sean A. Foley/US Army

Practically Everyone Retires Early These Days

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 3:15 PM EST

As long as we're on a retirement kick around here, Social Security's latest statistical supplement is out and you just know you can't resist diving in to its 528 pages of mind-numbing tables. Just kidding. I'll bet you can resist. (But if you really can't resist, the whole thing is here.)

Anyway, here's an interesting chart (from Table 5.B8) showing the rise in early retirement. Bottom line: Almost no one waits until age 66 (the current full retirement age) these days. A full 71 percent of men and 76 percent of women now get reduced Social Security benefits because they retired early. In 1965, only 21 percent of men and 49 percent of women retired early.

Among men, the average monthly benefit for those who retired early is $1,283. The average monthly benefit for those who waited is $1,625. Among women, the averages are $1,019 and $1,283.

We Humans Are Terrible Earwitnesses

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 1:49 PM EST

Over the weekend I wrote a short post about how terrible most people are as eyewitnesses. Today I got this email from JB, a regular reader:

Human beings are terrible "earwitnesses," too. I’ve been a lawyer specializing in air crash litigation — from the defense side — for 33 years, and witnesses often claim to have heard what are, essentially, impossible sounds. My favorite involves turbine-powered helicopters (I was a military helicopter pilot before entering law school), which earwitnesses invariably report as suffering engine "missing" (irregular piston firing) just before a crash, when turbine engines — you guessed it — don’t have pistons. Occasionally, you get a good report from a sophisticated witness like a pilot or mechanic, but most of the time the best you can hope for is some indication of either sound or silence at a given point before impact, about which you have to fill in the source from a menu of the possible.

This is no surprise, of course. Eyes, ears, whatever. We humans are just unreliable witnesses, especially when we're under stress. Unfortunately, most of the time it really matters, we're under stress.

Obama Wants to Spend More on Infrastructure. Will Republicans Go Along?

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 1:44 PM EST

Apparently President Obama plans to use part of tomorrow's State of the Union address to talk about new investments in infrastructure: roads, bridges, electrical grid upgrades, etc. Neil Irwin correctly points out that this would make a ton of sense, since lots of construction workers are unemployed and interest rates are essentially negative, but also correctly points out that Republicans don't care about any of that. Spending is bad, and that's that. And yet, Irwin is optimistic!

"Anything that is akin to the stimulus bill is not going to be acceptable to the American people," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in September 2011, after Obama proposed a series of job-creation measures centered around new infrastructure.

But a few things have changed since then. First, Republicans have seen electoral damage by their image as an obstruction-at-all-cost party, losing the White House and seats in both houses of Congress in the 2012 elections....Second, the president has been re-elected, so there is no longer the odd dynamic where bipartisan dealmaking could make Obama look more statesmanlike and help his re-election chances.

Much of the Republican opposition to infrastructure spending has been rooted in a conviction that all government spending is a boondoggle, taxing hard-working Americans to give benefits to a favored few, and exceeding any reasonable cost estimate in the process. That's always a risk with new spending on infrastructure: that instead of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, you end up with the Bridge to Nowhere and the Big Dig.

In that sense, this is a great test of whether divided democracy can work, and whether Republicans can come to the table to govern. One can easily imagine a deal: Democrats get their new infrastructure spending, and Republicans insist on a structure that requires private sector lenders to be co-investors in any projects, deploying money based on its potential return rather than where the political winds are tilting.

In other words, the two sides could negotiate in good faith and, in the process, get a better outcome for the U.S. economy than either party could operating on its own. Now that would be something to see.

This is odd. I'm trying to figure out if there's any reason, no matter how slight, to think that Republicans have any interest at all in a deal like this. Obviously I'm blinkered by my own partisan biases, but I sure can't think of any. Am I missing anything here?