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There's New Information on What Happened in Benghazi and It Discredits GOP Claims

Sat Jul. 12, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

David Corn and Michelle Bernard joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the latest Benghazi scandal bubble burst.

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

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Friday Cat Blogging - 11 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 2:53 PM EDT

For a variety of reasons, fresh catblogging just didn't happen this week. So I'm going to do what everyone else does when they fail to meet an editorial deadline: run some old stuff and pretend it's an extra-special feature. So here you are: rarely seen archival footage from January 14, 2007, Domino's first day at home after we picked her up from the shelter. As you can see, she immediately made her way to a book about a magical cat who refrains from eating its shipmate. This was a good influence, I think.

This Is How HBO Makes the World of "Game Of Thrones" So Spectacularly Real

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 12:42 PM EDT

Season four of "Game of Thrones" is up for 19 awards at the 66th Emmys, including Outstanding Special and Visual Effects. This recently released video shows how HBO's visual effects wizards—led by VE Supervisors Joe Bauer and Joern Grosshans—make George R.R. Martin's books not only come alive but truly jump out of the screen.

Watch:

A Progress Report on "Reform Conservatism"

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Does the new generation of "reform conservatives" represent real change for the Republican Party? In policy terms, not really. They've offered up a few variations on popular conservative themes (reducing taxes via child tax credits instead of cuts in top marginal rates, for example), but for the most part they've just nibbled around the edges. David Frum, however, says this is still a good start:

What matters most about the reformers is not the things they say but the things they don’t. They don’t abuse the long-term unemployed. They don’t advocate tighter monetary policy in the midst of the worst slump since the 1930s. They don’t urge an immigration policy intended to drive wages even lower than they have already tumbled.

They don’t pooh-pooh the risks of a government default on its obligations, as many conservatives did when radicals in the GOP forced debt-ceiling confrontations in 2011 and 2013. They don’t blame budget deficits for the slow recovery from the crisis of 2009. They don’t shrug off the economic and social troubles of 80 percent of the American nation.

Fair enough. At the same time, there have always been successful conservatives who were tonally distinct from the tea party. Paul Ryan is the best-known example. He's mild-mannered and speaks in the language of an accountant. He always seems reasonable and willing to engage. He doesn't participate in tea party histrionics. In short, he doesn't say any of the things Frum mentions above.

And yet, Ryan remains a tea party darling, and for good reason: his budget is a radically right-wing enterprise. Perhaps the most genuinely radical, genuinely right-wing enterprise in all of Washington.

So the question for the reform conservatives is: What's next? Are they trying to build credibility with conservatives so they can later nudge them in a new direction? Or are they mostly just trying to put a friendly veneer on an essentially tea partyish agenda? We don't know yet, because so far they haven't been willing to take many risks. And with good reason. As a friend emailed just a few minutes ago, "The reformers are one bad suggestion away from being fully Frumanized out of the party."

I wish the reformers luck. And I don't really blame them for their timidity so far. Still, it's far too early to tell how serious they are. We'll just have to wait and see.

Does Financial Literacy Matter?

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 11:56 AM EDT

We recently received the grim news that American schoolkids are behind their international peers when it comes to financial literacy. We can add this to the pile of grim news about American schoolkids being behind their international peers in math, science, reading, and every other subject imaginable.

Is this actually true? Well, it depends on which tests you rely on and which countries you compare to. And when you disaggregate by income and race you often end up with different results. Still, it's a good horror story, and one we can't seem to get enough of. The financial literacy debacle fits right in.

But forget for a moment whether American high school students really suck at financial literacy. The Economist raises an entirely different question: does it even matter?

Perhaps most important, courses in personal finance do not appear to have an impact on adult behaviour. As Buttonwood has pointed out, the knowledge that students acquire in school when they are in their teens does not necessary translate into action when they have to deal with mortgages and credit-card payments later in life. One study, for example, found that financial education has no impact on household saving behaviour. As a paper by Lewis Mandell and Linda Schmid Klein suggests, the long-term effectiveness of high-school classes in financial literacy is highly doubtful. It may simply be the case that the gap in time is too wide between when individuals acquire their financial knowledge, as high-school students, and when they're in a position to apply what they have learned.

Now, I've long had my doubts whether any of the actual knowledge I learned in high school matters. Habits matter. Basic skills matter. The ability to figure out how to figure out stuff matters. Learning to sit still and concentrate for half an hour at a time matters. But trigonometry? Catcher in the Rye? The history of the Gilded Age? That's not so clear. Maybe financial literacy falls into the same category.

Alternatively, it may be that education has little impact on our behavior in general. We all know that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and yet that knowledge does us little good. Most of us overeat anyway. Likewise, even if we know that interest charges on credit card debt can eat us alive, we might just go ahead and buy that snazzy new big-screen TV anyway.

Who knows? Maybe education outside of (a) basic skills and (b) highly specific skills used in our professions really doesn't matter much. If that turned out to be true, I can't say it would surprise me an awful lot. Being a Renaissance Man may be overrated.

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Prior Experience Doesn't Matter (Much)

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen points to yet another story today about how HR departments are using big data to hire and manage employees, and it's fairly interesting throughout. However, my appreciation for the power of this approach was certainly enhanced when I read the following:

For Xerox this means putting prospective candidates for the company’s 55,000 call-centre positions through a screening test that covers a wide range of questions....The results are surprising. Some are quirky: employees who are members of one or two social networks were found to stay in their job for longer than those who belonged to four or more social networks (Xerox recruitment drives at gaming conventions were subsequently cancelled). Some findings, however, were much more fundamental: prior work experience in a similar role was not found to be a predictor of success.

This was something I always scratched my head about back when I was a hiring manager. Obviously you want someone with work experience that's related to the job you're trying to fill, but an awful lot of my fellow managers seemed pretty obsessed with finding candidates with almost identical experience. I understood the attraction of hiring someone who seemed like they could be slotted in immediately and hit the ground running, but it still seemed misplaced. Which would you rather hire? Someone fairly good with exactly the right experience, or someone really good who might take a month or two to learn some new things? I'd choose the latter in a heartbeat.

On the other hand, I suppose valuing experience highly might be a good idea if you really had no faith in your ability to distinguish good from really good. And the truth is that most of us probably don't. So maybe finding perfect fits makes more sense than I gave it credit for. After all, back in the Middle Ages we didn't have access to Xerox's whiz-bang big data.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 11, 2014

Fri Jul. 11, 2014 10:10 AM EDT

A group of US Marines, the Silver Eagles, say goodbye and prepare to deploy to the Western Pacific. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Sarah Cherry.)

New Study: Lobbying Doesn't Help Company Profits—But It's Great For Executive Pay

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 3:00 AM EDT

Who really profits when companies drop millions on lobbying? A new paper by Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University suggests a surprising answer: Corporate America's record expenditures on political influence may be doing little for the companies doing the spending, but a lot for their executives' pocketbook.

"Our main finding suggests that the top executives of firms are the ones who are able to capture the benefits of firm political connections," the paper says. The researchers mined a trove of PAC contributions and lobbying data from the Center for Responsive Politics and matched it with a variety of standard corporate performance indicators. They found that no matter how much lobbying or political contributions a company pays for, there's almost no significant rise in the company's overall performance—but executive compensation does rise significantly. The only exceptions were the banking and finance industries, where companies also appear to gain some benefits.

Regardless of who benefits, influence spending still registers in the billions of dollars: As the chart below shows, the amount of money spent on lobbying annually more than doubled to $3.3 billion between 1998 and 2013. In 2012 alone, the two leading spenders, the pharmaceuticals and insurance sectors, dropped more than $409 million on lobbying and more than $107 million on political contributions.

 

Here Are the Court Records of the Restraining Order Against Alleged Texas Murderer Ronald Lee Haskell

| Thu Jul. 10, 2014 8:45 PM EDT

On Wednesday evening, Ronald Lee Haskell, disguised as a Fed-Ex delivery man, gained entry to the home of his sister-in-law and her spouse, Stephen and Katie Stay, demanding the whereabouts of his estranged ex-wife. Haskell would go on to shoot the Stays and their five children, killing everyone except his 15-year-old niece, and only surrendering to police after a three-and-a-half hour standoff.

In July of 2013, Haskell's wife filed a protective order against him in Cache County, Utah, where they lived at the time. In October 2013, Haskell's protective order was converted to a "mutual restraining order" as part of their divorce and custody proceedings. This crucial step likely meant that Haskell was legally allowed to have guns again under both state and federal law.

Read the full docket of Haskell's protective order proceedings below. Read the full details of the case, as well our analysis of domestic-violence-related gun laws here.