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Is Greece Blinking First?

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 2:56 PM EST

Hum de hum. An unnamed source says Greece is changing its tune about demanding a new deal to replace its existing rescue package:

Greece will seek an extension to its rescue deal from the rest of the eurozone Wednesday, an official with knowledge of the situation said....Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said he expects an agreement between Greece and the eurozone over an extension. “It is my considered opinion that there is going to be a text that everyone is going to be happy with,” Mr. Varoufakis said in a brief telephone interview, despite talks in recent days with his eurozone counterparts that he described as “boisterous.”

But there's also this:

The comments came shortly after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gave a defiant speech in Parliament in Athens, saying his government would move to immediately dismantle overhauls mandated by its bailout program....“We are not taking even one step back from our basic promises to the Greek people, not one step back from our pre-election promises,” Mr. Tsipras said.

So it's more good-cop-bad-cop. But if this report is true, it looks like it's Greece that's blinking first. Why? Probably because—to Greece's surprise—the Germans seem all too sincere about letting Greece default and exit the euro if they refuse to continue down the austerity path they're currently on. If this is really the state of play, then Greece will get a few minor concessions that Tsipras can spin as a victory for domestic consumption, but not much more.

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This Supercut of Women Kicking Ass Puts Hollywood's Lack of Female Action Leads to Shame

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 2:10 PM EST

Hollywood's gender inequality issues always take an even more frustrating turn when the focus moves to the dire lack of female leads in action movies. While more actresses are speaking up, it's unlikely studio heads will start truly investing in badass female roles anytime soon—unless of course your lady appears overtly sexualized, to the delight of nerds everywhere.

Till then, we have this: a rousing supercut produced by awesome woman Clara Darko filled with just the ladies—Helen Mirren! Sigourney Weaver! Uma Thurman!—kicking ass way better than the boys.

(h/t Gizmodo)

No, a DHS Shutdown Probably Won't Hurt Republicans Much

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 1:39 PM EST

Republicans are threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security over their opposition to any funding bill that doesn't halt President Obama's immigration actions, and today Ed Kilgore notes a new poll today that says a majority of the public will indeed blame Republicans if this happens. Only 30 percent will blame Obama:

That 30% probably blames Obama for bad winter weather, so he's on relatively safe ground here. As for Republicans, some don't give a damn about public opinion (outside their bright-red districts, at least), some have convinced themselves that shutting down the whole damn government worked out all right for them just over a year ago, and some are simply prisoners of their own rhetoric and prejudices. In any event, adverse polling data alone won't pull them back from the brink.

This is basically just an excuse to mention something that surprisingly few people acknowledge: shutting down the government in 2013 did work out all right for Republicans. The punditocracy seems almost unanimously convinced that it seriously hurt them, and it's true that the GOP leadership wants to avoid a replay. But aside from a brief dip in the polls, the GOP escaped almost entirely unharmed. As soon as the shutdown was over, media attention shifted instantly to the Obamacare meltdown that was then in progress.

In fact, a year after the shutdown, Republicans won the 2014 election in a landslide. Does anyone think they would have done even better if they hadn't shut down the government? Anyone?

This isn't to say that Republicans aren't playing with fire here. Shutting down DHS has really bad optics, and presidents have ways of making shutdowns look even worse than they are. Republicans will complain that Obama is playing politics, and they'll probably be right, but their griping will fall on deaf ears. What's more, as time wears on the crazytown wing of the Republican Party will start saying some seriously embarrassing things. They always do. In the end, then, some kind of face-saving compromise will probably be reached that funds DHS and makes little more than a token concession on immigration.

In other words, the shutdown probably won't do Republicans any good—though it's always helpful to keep the base energized. But I frankly doubt that it will do them much harm either.

Income Inequality Is Temporarily Down, But Hardly Out

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 1:09 PM EST

Has income inequality increased under President Obama? David Leonhardt says no, and provides two reasons.

The first reason is fairly uninteresting: the rich suffered huge losses during the Great Collapse of 2008. So even though they've gobbled up nearly all of the earning gains since then, they still haven't gotten back to their 2007 income levels.

This is uninteresting because it's only temporarily true. Given current trends, the rich will regain all their losses within another year or two, and probably surpass them. Incomes of the rich have always been volatile, but the broad trend of the past few decades is pretty clear: they invariably make up the losses they incur during recessions and then soar to new heights. This is almost certain to happen again as the recovery strengthens.

Leonhardt's second reason, however, is more interesting: government policy under Obama has increased the earnings of the poor and the middle class. Leonhardt cites a recent study from Stephen Rose of George Washington University:

The existing safety net of jobless benefits, food stamps and the like cushioned the blow of the so-called Great Recession. So did the stimulus bill that President Obama signed in 2009 and some smaller bills passed afterward. “Not only were low-income people protected — middle-income and some higher income-households had much lower losses because of these public policies,” Mr. Rose said. “For those who think government programs never work, maybe they need to think again.”

....Pretax income for the middle class and poor dropped substantially from 2007 to 2011 — about 10 percent for most groups. Yet including taxes and transfers, incomes fared better: Average income for the bottom fifth of earners rose 2.6 percent, to $24,100, and the average for the middle fifth fell only 2 percent, to $59,000. Such stagnation is hardly good news, but it’s a lot better than a large decline.

We can add Obamacare to that list too. It effectively increased the earnings of millions of low-income workers. And retaining the pre-Bush top marginal tax rates in the fiscal cliff deal of 2012 decreased the post-tax earnings of the rich slightly.

None of this is massive. The rich will make up their losses, safety net programs are already receding as the economy recovers, and middle-class wages continue to be pretty stagnant. The growth of income inequality may have taken a brief hiatus when the economy crashed, but it's almost certain to return, bigger and badder than ever. As Leonhardt concludes:

Mr. Rose himself, who’s more optimistic about the state of the middle class than I am, says, the United States has “a real income-inequality problem.”

But the fact that inequality hasn’t continued rising in the last several years matters — first, because facts matter, and, second, because it helps show what Washington has the potential to do. For much of the last few decades, rather than attacking inequality, government policy has exacerbated it. Tax rates on the very rich, the same group receiving the largest pretax raises, have fallen the most.

In the last several years, however, the federal government has tried to combat inequality, through a combination of tax and spending policies. These efforts weren’t aggressive enough to bring major raises to most families. The financial crisis was too big, and Washington’s response was too restrained. Yet the efforts were aggressive enough to make a difference.

They are a reminder that rising inequality is not inevitable, and that the country has the power to shape its economy.

This is true. Unfortunately, Obama's efforts to modestly address income inequality were nearly all completed during his first year in office, when he had big Democratic majorities in Congress. Since then, almost nothing has happened, and that's the way things are likely to stay as long as Republicans remain resolutely opposed to anything that concretely helps either the poor or the middle class.

Forget Bribery and Blackmail, Job Offers Are the Real Corruption in Politics

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 11:29 AM EST

This will obviously not come as a shock to anyone, but Suzanne Dovi, a public policy professor at the University of Arizona, puts together a few interesting factlets about government corruption in an op-ed today:

Political scientist Adolfo Santos has found that public officials who have plans to become lobbyists act differently while in office from their colleagues who don't. Interestingly, they are more successful at passing the bills they introduce than officials who don't go on to be lobbyists. Does this behavior reflect their desire to please their potential future employer or something else? We can't tell. What we do know is that public officials who are no longer thinking about reelection are freed from the sanctioning power of constituents.

....One report found that congressional members, on average, get a 1,452% raise when they become lobbyists....Interestingly, according to one study, former staff members can generate more revenue (and earn higher salaries) than former members of Congress.

Dovi recommends that we increase the mandatory waiting period before government officials and staffers can become lobbyists. Instead of being required to wait two years after they leave their jobs, she suggests six. "A six-year wait would significantly weaken their connections and diminish their earning power as lobbyists. And that would reduce the temptation to treat public service as a trial job period, acting on behalf of a future boss rather than the constituents."

This, of course, is why it will never happen. But it's probably not a bad idea.

A Judge Just Blocked Obama's Immigration Plans. Here's Why You Shouldn't Take His Ruling Seriously.

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 11:02 AM EST

A federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, has issued an injunction against President Obama's recent immigration actions. I don't take this even slightly seriously. To see why, all you have to do is read to the end of the New York Times account:

Judge Hanen, who was appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has excoriated the Obama administration’s immigration policies in several unusually outspoken rulings....At a hearing on Jan. 15, Judge Hanen said Brownsville, which sits on the border with Mexico, was an appropriate venue for the suit because its residents see the impact of immigration every day. “Talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood,” Judge Hanen said.

In a long and colorful opinion last August, Judge Hanen departed from the issue at hand to accuse the Obama administration of adopting a deportation policy that “endangers America” and was “an open invitation to the most dangerous criminals in society.”

The case involved a Salvadoran immigrant with a long criminal record whom Judge Hanen had earlier sent to prison for five years. Instead of deporting the man after he served his sentence, an immigration judge in Los Angeles ordered him released, a decision Judge Hanen found “incredible.” Citing no specific evidence, he surmised that the administration had adopted a broader policy of releasing such criminals.

While acknowledging that he had no jurisdiction to alter policy, Judge Hanen said he relied on his “firsthand, in-the-trenches knowledge of the border situation” and “at least a measurable level of common sense” to reach his conclusions about the case.

Judge Andrew Hanen so obviously hates both Obama and his immigration actions that no one is going to take his decision seriously. It's a polemic, not a proper court ruling. The case will continue its dreary way through Hanen's docket, but I imagine an appeals court will stay the injunction pretty quickly, and then overrule his inevitable final ruling in short order. The right-wing plaintiffs in this case may have thought they were being clever in venue shopping to get the case before Hanen, but it won't do them any good. It might even backfire, given just how transparently political Hanen's ruling is.

This story makes for a good headline, but it probably means little in real life. At most we'll have a delay of a few weeks in implementing Obama's immigration orders.

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Anti-Semitic Violence Has Very Different Roots in the U.S. and Europe

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 6:12 PM EST

In a recently updated post over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp has a longish write-up about the disturbing recent rise of anti-Semitic violence. But there's an interesting thing about it.

First off, here's the rate of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., as tallied by the Anti-Defamation League. What you see is a peak in the early 90s and a decline ever since. This is exactly the same thing that you see in rates of violent crime in general. In other words, as violent crime fell, violent crime directed at Jews also fell. This makes sense.

But the global picture is quite different. Partly this is probably due to the fact that the worldwide numbers come from a different source (the Kantor Center in Tel Aviv) and are tallied up using a different methodology. But I doubt that accounts for the stark contrast: worldwide, anti-Semitic attacks have been on a straight upward path ever since the late 90s. This is despite the fact that violent crime in Europe, which accounts for most of the incidents, has followed a trajectory pretty similar to the U.S. The exact dates when violent crime peaked and then started to fall are a little different in different countries, but not by a lot.

The Kantor data also shows that anti-Semitic violence in Canada tripled in the past decade. This is especially unusual. Canada is culturally more similar to the U.S. than Europe is, and the rise and fall of violent crime in Canada has been nearly identical to that in the U.S.

The conventional conclusion from this is, first of all, that anti-Semitic violence in Europe is triggered by events: Israeli incursions into Gaza, the various intifadas, copycat attacks, etc. So you see peaks that correspond to these events, which drives up the trend numbers as triggering events increase. Beyond that, there's a broad increase in attacks that's most likely related to the influence of far-right parties in European countries. The U.S. is different because it has no equivalent far-right parties of any strength, and because, apparently, American anti-Semites aren't especially motivated by specific events. We just have a subset of violent criminals who decide to take out their anger on Jews, and do so fairly randomly.

As for Canada, I don't even have a guess. I would expect their trend rate to be similar to the U.S., but it's clearly not.

I don't have a sharp point to make about this. I just thought the stark difference between the U.S. and Europe was interesting, as was the fact that the U.S. numbers appear to be driven by overall levels of violent crime, while European numbers are driven by something quite different. Comments welcome.

Eurozone Fiddling While Greece Burns

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 2:42 PM EST

Hmmm. Things are not looking good in Greece:

A meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Greece's debt crisis broke up in acrimony on Monday evening, further dimming hopes of a speedy resolution to problems that could result in the new Greek government soon running out of money.

Just before the meeting ended, a Greek official dismissed the latest proposal by its European creditors as “unreasonable and unacceptable.” The proposal had called for Greece to abide by the current terms of its bailout program.

In other words: "Our offer is this: nothing." Greece needs to toe the line and will be given no quarter. Paul Krugman considers the possibility that the eurozone ministers are just idiots, and finds it unlikely. They know exactly what they're doing:

Alternatively, and I guess more likely, they’ve decided to push Greece over the edge. Rather than give any ground, they prefer to see Greece forced into default and probably out of the euro, with the presumed economic wreckage as an object lesson to anyone else thinking of asking for relief. That is, they’re setting out to impose the economic equivalent of the “Carthaginian peace” France sought to impose on Germany after World War I.

Either way, the lack of wisdom is astonishing and appalling.

This is a helluva game of chicken everyone is playing. But Krugman might be right. There's so much genuine acrimony on both sides—Germans think the Greeks are chronic liars and spendthrifts1, Greeks think the Germans are self-righteous bullies—and there's so much political incentive not to give ground, that in the end, maybe no one will give ground. And then Greece will default and will get kicked out of the euro.

If this happens, it would certainly be catastrophic in the short term, but it's possible that it would be better for Greece in the long term. Still, keep in mind that we might not find out. In the past, the standard pattern for eurozone crises was pretty simple: lots of threats back and forth, and no resolution until literally the last hour of the last day. We still have a couple of weeks to go, and it might work out the same way this time. Stay tuned.

1An opinion that may have calcified even further over the past couple of months as Greece's finances deteriorated fairly badly. Short version here, details here.

A Simple Chart That Shows We've Locked Up Too Many People

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 11:55 AM EST

Correlation is not causation. This has recently become something of an all-purpose comeback from people who want to sound smart without really understanding anything about a particular research result. Still, whether it's overused or not, it's a true statement. When two things move up and down together, it's a hint that one of them might be causing the other, but it's just a hint. Sometimes correlation implies causation and sometimes it doesn't.

The inverse statement, however, is different: If there's no correlation, then there's no causation. With the rarest of exceptions, this is almost always true. Dara Lind provides an example of this as it relates to crime and mass incarceration.

The chart on the right shows the trend in various states at reducing incarceration. If reducing incarceration produced more crime, you'd expect at least some level of correlation. The dots would line up to look something like the red arrow, with lots of dots in the upper left quadrant.

Obviously we see nothing like that. In fact, we don't appear to see any significant correlation at all. As Lind says, the scatterplot is just a scatter.

It's possible that a more sophisticated analysis would tease out a correlation of some kind. You can show almost anything if you really put your mind to it. But if a simple, crude scatterplot doesn't show even a hint of a correlation, it's almost a certainty that there's nothing there. And in this case it demonstrates that we've locked up too many people. Mass incarceration hit the limit of its effectiveness in the late-80s and since then has been running dangerously on autopilot. It ruins lives, costs a lot of money, and has gone way beyond the point where it affects the crime rate. It's well past time to reverse this trend and get to work seriously cutting the prison population.

Is the Government About to Warn America Against Meat?

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EST

Every five years, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) get together to revise their recommendations about what Americans should eat. These guidelines influence doctors' health advice, food labels, the ever evolving food pyramid-turned-plate, and what goes into school lunches. For instance, in 2010, a time when more than half of adults were overweight or obese, the agencies recommended things like drinking water instead of sugary beverages, filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, cutting sodium, and just eating less in general.

It's 2015, so time for some new advice. The guidelines draw on input from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), which will publish a report sometime this winter. So what are the hottest items under debate this year? Here's a run-down of what to look for in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans report:

The meat vs. plants showdown: It probably comes as no surprise that Americans eat a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and full of too many solid fats. In fact, vegetable consumption was on the decline between 2001 and 2010 even as each of us now eat 202.3 pounds of meat a year; a bit less red meat than a few years ago but more poultry than ever before. In the past, the government has warned against overdoing it with red meat and urged people to chow down on lean meats like chicken and fish instead. But this year, for the first time, the committee might caution against overconsumption of all kinds of meat—and not just for health reasons, but also because of meat's environmental footprint. Livestock operations now produce 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Eating fewer animal-based foods "is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact," the committee suggested in its draft report.

Raising livestock now comprises 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions.

Which of course has ruffled the meat industry. Removing lean meat from healthy diet recommendations is "stunning," read a recent statement by the North American Meat Institute. "The committee's focus on sustainability is questionable because it is not within the committee's expertise."

Cholesterol is back: Your body makes its own cholesterol but you also get some when you eat animal fats, including eggs. Previous guidelines warned that too much of the waxy substance in the blood leads to higher risk of heart disease, and recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. But this year's guidelines might downplay dietary cholesterol's risk, marking the comeback of the daily omelet. The DGAC's December meeting notes stated that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

"We now know that cholesterol in the diet makes very little difference in terms of bad cholesterol in the blood," University of Pennsylvania's molecular biologist Dan Rader told Forbes. People get high cholesterol in the blood because of their genes or because the body's mechanisms for cleaning out blood cholesterol aren't working properly, he explains.

"Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

We've been cautioned against cholesterol in our diets for the last fifty years, ever since the American Heart Association warned about it in 1961, reports the Washington Post. But in late 2013, a task force including the AHA found "insufficient evidence" in studies it reviewed to warn most people against eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs, shellfish, and red meat.  

Put down the soda: I repeat: Put down the soda. Americans consume way too much added sugar, 22 to 30 teaspoons a day by some estimates, or nearly four times the healthy limits proposed by the AHA. And sugar-sweetened drinks account for nearly half of these added sugars. As Mother Jones has reported over the years, these jolts of added sugar have been linked with obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a whole host of other ailments.

The World Health Organization turned heads last year when it reduced its recommendation about healthy added sugar intake from roughly 12 teaspoons to around 6 teaspoons a day (aka less than one can of Coke). The Dietary Guidelines might not go that far, but this year the committee will likely propose limits on added sugar for the first time: No more than 10 percent of your daily energy should come from added sugar, the committee suggests, which comes out to about 12 teaspoons a day for an adult with an average BMI.

Not sure how we feel about salt: "Sodium is ubiquitous in the food supply," noted the Committee in its December meeting notes. The 2010 Guidelines recommended that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a far cry from the 3,400 mg we inhale on average. The Guidelines also suggested that certain at-risk groups like people over age 51 and diabetics should eat less than 1,500 mg a day.

But while a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine stated that reducing sodium intake is important for heart health, it also pointed to recent research suggesting that "sodium intakes that are low may increase health risks—particularly in certain groups"—like people with diabetes or kidney disease. The report asserted that there's no evidence of benefits in reducing sodium intake to 1,500 mg for these subgroups or for the general population. While the Committee seems to want to warn people off sodium-laden diets for the 2015 guidelines, given these mixed findings about levels it seems unlikely that it will set a new defined limit.