2013 - %3, February

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 February 2013

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 2:57 PM EST

Here is Domino, looking boldly forward to a future of artificially intelligent robots to cater to her every whim. Not that this would actually make a big difference in her life, mind you. But they'd probably be slightly more responsive when she decides to wake them up in the middle of the night. Her human servants just get grouchy.

In any case, it's a great day to wander around in the morning sun. 75 degrees today. That's my kind of winter.

Next week: the return of quiltblogging!

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Money Is Fungible, Contraceptive Edition

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 12:58 PM EST

Hey, guess what? Contraception is back in the news! HHS proposed a new set of of healthcare rules today that would allow faith-based nonprofits to opt out of contraception coverage entirely. Instead, their insurance carriers would be required to provide contraceptive riders at no cost. If an organization is self-insured, they'll notify their plan administrator, who would find an insurance issuer to provide "separate, individual health insurance policies at no cost for participants." The cost would be offset by adjustments in "federally-facilitated exchange user fees that insurers pay," whatever that means.

As you can imagine, this is likely to have no impact on the debate at all. Conservatives who are outraged about contraceptives being covered by health plans will remain outraged. The rest of us, who think covering contraceptives is a great idea, will be perfectly happy to accept this kludge.

And, let's be honest, it is a kludge. There's no such thing as "no cost." If an insurance carrier covers contraceptives, that's a cost they're going to make up somewhere else. And that somewhere else is in the premiums for the main policy. There's really no way around that.

In other words, money is fungible, a subject that liberals and conservatives alike treat with abandon depending on whether they happen to like the consequences. In this case, liberals are willing to accept the fiction that the money for contraceptive coverage is somehow "segregated," and conservatives aren't. When bailed-out bankers pay themselves big bonuses and swear that not one dime is coming from bailout funds, the roles are reversed. All good fun.

The 12 Most Threatening People on the NRA's Enemies List

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 12:52 PM EST
The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is Barry Manilow with a microphone.

Back in September, in an effort to prove...we're not exactly sure what, the National Rifle Association published a list of some several-hundred non-profits, celebrities, companies, and news organizations that "have lent monetary, grassroots or some other type of direct support to anti-gun organizations." Daily Kos, which drew attention to the list Friday morning, calls it "nuts," which is certainly one way of looking at it.

The NRA doesn't offer any explanation of its selection process, or why they think it's a compelling argument to call attention to the fact that the Civil Rights organization founded by Martin Luther King Jr. opposes what the NRA does. But maybe they're on to something.

Here are 12 of the most terrifying people and groups on the NRA's list:

Carrie Fisher. Daughter of a Jedi.

Henry Winkler. Literally jumped a shark one time.

Mennonite Central Committee. You know who else had a central committee?

Barry Manilow. Is Barry Manilow.

The Temptations. Deliver us from them.

Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine. Basically what it sounds like.

Central Conference of American Rabbis. Ditto.

Mary Lou Retton. Her medal may be gold, but her bullets are lead.

Tara Lipinski. Actually wears knives on the bottom of her shoes.

Boys II Men. [sic]

Bob Barker. QED:

Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We don't actually have a joke here. How can you put the SCLC on your enemies list?

Obama Admin Widens Exemption for Contraception Coverage

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 12:46 PM EST

The Obama administration announced a shift in its policy regarding insurance coverage for contraception on Friday. The new policy provides an accommodation for faith-based non-profit organizations to the requirement that their group health insurance plans cover birth control.

The contraception policy previously exempted religious organizations that had "inculcation of religious values" as their main purpose and primarily employed and served people who shared their religious tenets. But other religious organizations that offer services (like meals, education, or health care) to and employ people not of their faith worried that they might not qualify for the exemption. With the new accommodation, those non-profits would have to certify that they oppose providing the contraceptive services required under the law; after they do that, they'd be given a pass from providing contraceptive coverage in their group health insurance plans. Instead, those women will get a separate plan directly from the insurance company that covers contraception. 

This issue had been the subject of several lawsuits filed by religious-affiliated institutions like hospitals, schools, and social service organizations that believed they should not have to provide coverage for things that don't align with their religious beliefs. 

The new policy also changes the category of organizations that can qualify for a full exemption from the policy to the IRS' definition, which includes all  "churches, other houses of worship, and their affiliated organizations." These organizations don't have to provide contraception coverage at all if they oppose it.

One group that has been hoping for an opt-out for contraception coverage that didn't get it: Private-sector CEOs who personally oppose birth control will not be able to remove it from employees' plans.

Reproductive rights groups praised the change as a smart compromise. NARAL Pro-Choice America said in a statement that it is "optimistic that these new draft regulations will make near-universal contraceptive coverage a reality."

"This policy delivers on the promise of women having access to birth control without co-pays no matter where they work," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "Of course, we are reviewing the technical aspects of this proposal, but the principle is clear and consistent. This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control."

This story has been corrected to clarify the new policy.

The Man in the Plastic Mask

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 12:13 PM EST

I know I'm exposing my ignorance of DC folkways here, but I'm curious: who's the dude in the picture on the right, taken during yesterday's Chuck Hagel hearings? Interpreter? Message passer-alonger? Stenographer? Someone who needed a hit of oxygen to stay awake while John McCain was droning on? What's the deal here?

UPDATE: The consensus in comments so far seems to be that this is a stenographer's mask. You can read all about it here.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in January

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 11:09 AM EST

The American economy added 157,000 new jobs last month, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth was closer to 67,000 jobs. This was a little less than December's number, which was revised upward to 196,000 (106,000 net). The unemployment number went up a few hundredths of a point thanks to re-benchmarking of BLS's population estimates, which means the headline number ended up a tenth higher at 7.9 percent.

Down in the weeds, there were no big changes. Final revisions to the 2012 numbers were positive but modest. The economy continues to slog along.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 1, 2013

Fri Feb. 1, 2013 10:48 AM EST

Afghan Border Police and U.S. Army Soldiers from ABP Zone 1, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, hike from their landing zone to an observation point along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Jan. 21, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich.

 

Conservatives Shocked to Discover Healthcare in America is Really Expensive

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 10:43 AM EST

"Can you respond to this?" asks a reader via Twitter. "Conservative friends are posting it all over." It turns out that "this" is a headline from CNS:

IRS: Cheapest Obamacare Plan Will Be $20,000 Per Family

Apparently conservatives are outraged by this, but I have one question for them: just how much do you think healthcare coverage costs? Do you have any clue at all?

It turns out that the IRS published some final regs related to Obamacare recently, and in an effort to be helpful they provided some worked-out examples that include some assumptions about how much health coverage is likely to cost for various kinds of families. In one example, they assume that a worker can buy coverage for himself for $5,000 and coverage for his entire family of four for $20,000. They then work out the tax implications of all this.

So is this unusual? Not really. The average cost of healthcare coverage for a family is currently about $16,000, and by 2015 (the base year for the IRS examples) that will probably be around $18,000 or so. And that's for employer-sponsored plans. Individual plans are generally steeper, so $20,000 isn't a bad guess. It might be a little high, but not by much. And the family in question will, of course, be eligible for generous subsidies that bring this cost down substantially, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. They won't actually pay $20,000 per year.

So is this outrageous? An example of Obamacare run amok? Hardly. It's just an example of how damn much healthcare coverage costs in America and why we needed Obamacare in the first place. Apparently a lot of conservatives are shocked when they find this out.

North Dakota Lawmakers Have Plenty of Anti-Abortion Bills to Choose From

| Fri Feb. 1, 2013 10:12 AM EST

In North Dakota, state legislators may soon have to decide when they believe life begins. Two measures—one implying it begins at conception and another suggesting it starts when a fetal heartbeat is detectable—were up for debate this week in legislative committees.

On Tuesday, state senators discussed three different "personhood" bills in the Judiciary Committee. The Bismark Tribune has the rundown:

  • Senate Concurrent Resolution 4009: This would declare an inalienable right to life at all stages of development. SCR4009 also calls for a 2014 vote to insert language affirming that right into the state Constitution.

  • Senate Bill 2302: Creates a Right To Life Act. SB2302 also bans abortions except in the case of saving a woman’s life in the event of a medical emergency. It also bars the use of chemicals for abortions.

  • Senate Bill 2303: Defines a human being as a person at all stages of development. Would allow an abortion in the event of a medical emergency that could endanger a woman’s life.

    Those are in addition to another bill, SB2305, which would require all doctors performing abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. Much like in Mississippi, where a similar bill became law last year, this bill threatens to shut down the state's lone abortion provider.

    Over in the North Dakota House, lawmakers debated a "heartbeat" bill on Wednesday that would make it illegal to perform an abortion if the doctor can detect a heartbeat—which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

    Call me a stickler for consistency, but I don’t see how one could vote for both these bills. Does life begin at conception, or when you can hear a heartbeat, or at some other arbitrary, Roe-violating benchmark? I mean, I do get that it's political; a "heartbeat" bill is probably easier to pass, and it doesn't threaten birth control and in vitro fertilization in the same way these "personhood" measures do. 

    Meanwhile, as I reported earlier this week, North Dakota lawmakers are also trying to block funding for an educational program designed to prevent pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases in at-risk teenagers because they're upset that Planned Parenthood would be running the program.

    CHARTS: TV News Mentioned Donald Trump Nearly 20 Times More Than Fracking in 2011

    | Fri Feb. 1, 2013 6:06 AM EST

    A paltry 1.2 percent of headlines in prominent media outlets focus on environment. That's the depressing finding from a study out today that surveyed headlines from 43 news and related organizations between January 2011 and May of 2012. Interestingly, Fox News devoted significantly more time to covering the environment, including healthy doses of climate change-denial, than did MSNBC and CNN:

     

    A caveat: "Fox News is often criticized for having a blatant anti-environment bias," the study notes, adding that "quantity is not a proxy for quality of coverage on this issue." (The study used very similar methodology to Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, and didn't discriminate between biased and unbiased or misleading environmental news.)

    What did most news outlets focus on? Crime and celebrities, mostly:

    Headlines by media type

    Notably, local newspapers were the only category of outlet that spent more time covering the environment than entertainment. On major newscasts (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox), LeBron James and other entertainment figures got far more mentions than most environmental issues. Even Donald Trump, arguably the topic America is most sick of hearing about, snagged almost 20 times as many headlines as fracking:

    Among online news outlets, Huffington Post had the highest overall percentage of stories about the environment—about 3 percent in all. (Mother Jones was not included in the study sample.)

    Percentage of online news sources

    The findings are especially frustrating when you consider the recent finding that nearly 80 percent of Americans would like to see more coverage of environmental issues.