2013 - %3, August

Music Review: "Cover All Sides" by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 6:16 PM EDT

TRACK 3

"Cover All Sides"

From Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin's Fly by Wire

POLYVINYL

Liner notes: In a modest yet striking feat, this Missouri combo blends late Beatles and prime Beach Boys to create a fresh and moving gem.

Behind the music: The trio visited Russia in January by invitation, meeting Yeltsin associates and performing at a K-12 school and the Old New Rock festival—the first American group to appear at the big winter rock event.

Check it out if you like: Classic pop from Big Star and Badfinger to the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie.

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Music Review: "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" by Neko Case

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 6:15 PM EDT

TRACK 6

"Nearly Midnight, Honolulu"

From Neko Case's The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

ANTI-

Liner notes: Mixing bitter and sweet, a cappella voices evoke a mother's tirade—"'Get the fuck away from me/Why don't you ever shut up?'"—and solace for her abused little boy.

Behind the music: Fans of Case's solo work have had little to chew on since 2009's Middle Cyclone, apart from a cut on the Hunger Games soundtrack and one for the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. For a radical change of pace, Google her cover of Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast."

Check it out if you like: Traditional-music boundary pushers like M. Ward and Jenny Lewis.

Quick Reads: "The Rational Animal" by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 3:23 PM EDT

 

The Rational Animal

By Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius

BASIC BOOKS

The science of irrationality is getting pretty sophisticated. Not only have researchers identified human foibles from loss aversion to hindsight bias, now they're poised to explain why we're so weird. We "are born to be biased," write coauthors Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius, "and for good reason." The Rational Animal is a fun romp through the comedy of human errors. Again and again, the authors find, evolutionary urges and hardwired brains explain behaviors rational economists cannot. Humans just don't make sense, it seems, unless you expect them not to.

Obama Asks Congress to Approve Syria Strike

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 3:04 PM EDT

Here's the latest on Syria:

President Obama stunned the capital and paused his march to war on Saturday by asking Congress to give him authorization before he launches a limited military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.

In a hastily organized appearance in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama said he had decided that the United States should use force but would wait for a vote from lawmakers, who are not due to return to town for more than a week. Mr. Obama said he believed he has authority to act on his own but did not say whether he would if Congress rejects his plan.

Good for him. He only did it under pressure, but at least he did it. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also forces Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibilities, something they should spend more time doing and less time constantly squawking about.

As for whether or not Obama will go ahead with an attack even if Congress rejects it, I can hardly imagine he would. Am I wrong about that? Is there even the slightest chance he'd go ahead even if Congress votes against it?

POSTSCRIPT: Not that they will. I predict he'll get at least 60 percent approval. As an aside, Obama will be out of town for most of next week. Given the middle-school temperament of much of Congress, that might actually make approval easier to get.

How to Make a Risk-Free Fortune on Wall Street

| Sat Aug. 31, 2013 10:40 AM EDT

Redline Trading Solutions recently allowed Berkeley professor Terrence Hendershott to conduct a study with its high-speed trading technology, which gave him access to stock prices a few milliseconds before everyone else. This meant that Hendershott knew, before he bought the stock, which way the price would move a fraction of a second later. As you might expect, this is a risk-free license to mint money:

According to his study, in one day (May 9), playing one stock (Apple), Hendershott walked away with almost $377,000 in theoretical profits by picking off quotes on various exchanges that were fractions of a second out of date. Extrapolate that number to reflect the thousands of stocks trading electronically in the U.S., and it's clear that high-frequency traders are making billions of dollars a year on a simple quirk in the electronic stock market.

One way or another, that money is coming out of your retirement account. Think of it like the old movie The Sting. High-speed traders already know who has won the horse race when your mutual fund manager lays his bet. You're guaranteed to come out a loser. You're losing in small increments, but every mickle makes a muckle — especially in a tough market.

"It's clear to us these guys are just raping, pillaging, and plundering the market," as Joe Saluzzi, co-founder of agency brokerage Themis Trading put it.

Click the link for more details, along with a simple and interesting idea for putting an end to this. In practice, stock markets are never going to be fair to every participant, but at the very least, their rules are supposed to make them theoretically fair to all comers. High-speed trading makes a mockery of this.

GOP Congressman Endorses Bogus Theory That Syria Got Its Chemical Weapons From Saddam

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 6:28 PM EDT

On Friday, the Obama administration released its assessment of last week's chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. The US government "assesses with high confidence" that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad carried out the attack, and that the Syrian government has a stockpile of sarin and other chemical agents. (UN chemical weapons experts are still working to confirm details regarding the attack.) This declassification was accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry's public statement, in which he called the attack a "crime against conscience" and "crime against humanity."

Something of this magnitude will always provoke a stream of conspiracy theories, some wilder than others. In a radio interview on Thursday, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) seemed to endorse one of them.

The Huffington Post reports:

"The theory then and the evidence was that Iraq was an enemy of the United States and had direct plans in either support of Al Qaeda and/or with other weapons that we found out weren't there—which I still think they were moved to Syria," said Terry. "And it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the chemical weapons that have been used by Syria actually came from Iraq."

[...]

When Becka asked whether Terry's claim about the transfer of weapons was based on information he had received as a member of Congress, Terry replied, "Gut feeling..."

This theory isn't new. Senior Bush administration officials publicly flirted with the idea that Iraq transferred weapons to other nations. The claim has been promoted on conservative media and Fox News many times over the years. In 2007, Mitt Romney said that it was "entirely possible" that weapons of mass destruction were moved from Iraq to Syria during the run-up to the Iraq war. The thing is that there is absolutely zero credible evidence that this was ever the case. I called up the State Department to ask about the theory the congressman rehashed. The first spokesperson I talked to simply laughed. The second could only say that the State Department doesn't "have any information on that."

For a firmer rebuttal, here's an AP report from January 2005:

[I]ntelligence and congressional officials say they have not seen any information—never "a piece," said one—indicating that WMD or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred from Iraq to neighboring Syria, Jordan or elsewhere...The [Bush] administration acknowledged...that the search for banned weapons is largely over. The Iraq Survey Group’s chief, Charles Duelfer, is expected to submit the final installments of his report in February. A small number of the organization’s experts will remain on the job in case new intelligence on Iraqi WMD is unearthed.

But the officials familiar with the search say U.S. authorities have found no evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein transferred WMD or related equipment out of Iraq.

A special adviser to the CIA director, Duelfer declined an interview request through an agency spokesman. In his last public statements, he told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.

"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."

Last week, a congressional official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.

After the subsequent report was released, Duelfer gave an interview to PBS NewsHour in which he expressed doubt that Iraq transferred WMDs to Syria prior to the US-led invasion. "Syria, we had some intelligence that perhaps some materials, suspicious materials, had been moved there," he said. "We looked as closely as we could at that, there were a few leads which we were not able to fully run down, largely because of the security situation, but it's my judgment that had substantial stocks, important stocks been moved to Syria, someone would have told something to us about that."

And in the years since, no new evidence has come to light suggesting otherwise. This all seems to conflict with Rep. Terry's "gut."

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Friday Cat Blogging - 30 August 2013

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 3:05 PM EDT

Happy last weekday of August! It's been a little warm around here this week, and Domino knows what that means. It means you stretch out your body as much as you possibly can and dissipate as much heat as possible. So that's what she's doing.

The Fed's Job Just Got a Lot Easier

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 2:42 PM EDT

Speaking of inflation, Josh Mitchell reports that it's still low, continuing to trend even lower, and that this could "complicate" the Fed's decision-making next month:

Both overall prices and core prices (excluding food and energy) rose a tepid 0.1% in July....From a year earlier, overall prices rose 1.4% while core prices rose just 1.2%....That’s well below the Fed’s target of 2% inflation.

....The central bank, in a statement after its July meeting, acknowledged its concerns about inflation remaining low. The Federal Open Market Committee said inflation “persistently below its 2% objective could pose risks to economic performance, but it anticipates that inflation will move back toward its objective over the medium term.”

You know, there are some things that really are complicated. The Middle East is complicated. Education policy is complicated. Quantum mechanics is complicated. But low inflation? That should make the Fed's job less complicated. It means they don't have to worry about whether stimulative monetary policy will send us into an inflationary spiral, which in turn means that boosting economic growth and reducing unemployment are the only things they have to think about right now. That should make their job easier, not harder.

Immigration Reform: Dead or Alive?

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 2:37 PM EDT

When Congress reconvenes in September, the immigration debate will pick up where it left off—that is, at a complete impasse. There is still broad, bipartisan support for comprehensive reform, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to allow the bill passed by the Senate earlier this summer to come up for debate; instead, members of his caucus are pursuing piecemeal legislation that focuses primarily on border security. Meanwhile, the clock is running out. With a debt ceiling showdown looming this fall and the midterm elections fast approaching after that, it's unclear whether the congressional calendar will allow enough time for any immigration legislation to advance before the current session of Congress expires.

Immigration reform advocates are publicly optimistic, but there's plenty of cynicism among political observers. Last week, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall declared reform dead and its proponents in denial that House Republicans will change their tune. Reformers should "forget the heroic measures to revive it," he argued, and "get about telling the public who killed it and holding them accountable for their actions" in the midterm elections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), has repeatedly said nothing will happen unless Boehner allows a vote on a broad path to citizenship for most of the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. Reform advocates are looking to October, when the bipartisan Gang of Seven plans to unveil its long-delayed comprehensive reform bill in House. The introduction of the bill will force House members to go on the record supporting or opposing the comprehensive, Senate-style reform bill and may eventually lead Boehner to bow to pressure on a path to citizenship.

"There's this sort of beltway conventional wisdom that we're dead, but we're optimistic," says Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, who responded to Marshall's cynical take with an open letter touting the resolve of the immigration reform movement. "The Republicans have to do something or risk going out of business as a viable national party."

Daniel Garza, a former Bush White House official who heads the Libre Initiative, an immigration reform group that approaches the topic from free-market perspective, doesn't see a path to citizenship as an all-or-nothing proposition. "At minimum, what we want is legality," he says. As a possible compromise with Democrats, some House Republicans have suggested a path to legalization that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, but would not lead to citizenship. "We feel that at minimum, that provides certainty to the folks who are coming here unauthorized that they won't be deported tomorrow, and we think that is significant enough to get behind what they're going to be proposing in the House."

"Republicans are for immigration reform, they're just not for what the Democrats are proposing," says Garza, who believes a path to citizenship will be limited to the something like the KIDS Act, which would only affect individuals brought to the country illegally when they were children. "Democrats have defined immigration reform as a path to citizenship," he adds, but while "publicly they won't tell you they would settle for legalization, I think secretly they would."

Sharry dismisses that as "wishful thinking," arguing that giving undocumented immigrants the ability to become permanent residents but not citizens would relegate them to a "permanent underclass." This is a proposition, he says, Democrats will reject out of hand.

Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, is more cautious. "I think it's a big assumption on both sides to say that under no circumstances would Democrats support, in the 11th hour, a program that didn't include a direct path to citizenship," she says. "But it's also hard to imagine there would be much of a political win for Republicans if they're supporting a second-class citizenship."

For now, it's a waiting game. "Republicans are going to have to make some really tough decisions, but ultimately they realize the demographic cliff they're falling off of is only getting higher and their fall is only getter harder," Kelley says.

Repeat After Me: Always Adjust for Inflation. Always Adjust for Inflation.

| Fri Aug. 30, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Lydia DePillis shows us the chart on the right, which comes from a recent study of the effect of corporate mergers on the price of beer, and says this:

This looks like a scary graph of beer price increases. The researchers determined, though, that the rise is largely not attributable to consolidation in the industry; there may be other factors at play.

Urk! What this really shows is the result of inflation. I've overlaid in red the CPI for food and beverages since 2007, and beer prices match it exactly. The economists who wrote the study may have used nominal prices in their chart instead of real prices because that's what they needed as input for their statistical manipulations, but this is a classic case of why you have to watch out for this kind of thing. What the researchers say they found is that the merger of Miller and Coors produced a 2 percent increase in prices that was offset by a 2 percent decrease in transportation costs, but that has nothing to do with the increase you see in the chart. That's all inflation.