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The US Economy Imploded Last Quarter

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

Yikes. In the first quarter GDP didn't grow by an anemic 0.1 percent. Nor did it shrink by 1 percent. According to the Commerce Department's final tally, it shrunk by 2.9 percent.

Everyone is brushing this off because other economic signals suggest it was a one-off event. And maybe so. But even if it is, it probably knocks about 1 percent off the full-year figure compared to a more normal growth rate of, say, at least 2 percent. The only way it turns out to be a nothingburger is if this number really is an anomaly and the economy makes up for it with supercharged growth for the rest of the year.

I have my doubts about that. I just don't buy the tired excuse that the Q1 number was weather related. Something happened.

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TV Strike Against Dodgers May be the Straw That Breaks the Sports Bubble

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez thinks it's long past time for everyone to figure out a way to end the Dodgers TV blackout in Southern California:

This all began in 2012 when the Guggenheim Group, or whatever they call themselves, paid too much money — about $2 billion — to buy the Dodgers from the hated Frank McCourt....The new owners then managed to dupe Time Warner Cable into spending an even more obscene amount — $8.4 billion — for the rights to broadcast the games on SportsNet LA.

....They figure they'll get all of it back from you and me by raising the price of tickets and hot dogs and the fees for getting the games on TV....But in the case of the Dodgers, there was a snag along the way. DirecTV and other companies didn't like Time Warner's asking price for the right to carry the games, and they told the cable giant to stuff it. So the standoff continues, with half the season gone and no relief in sight.

Actually, I don't think this is quite right. It's not the asking price per se that cable companies don't like, it's the fact that Time-Warner is demanding that their spiffy new all-Dodgers channel be added to the basic cable menu. Other broadcasters aren't willing to do this. If Time-Warner wants to set a carriage fee of $5 or $10 or whatever, that's OK as long as it's only being paid by people who actually want to watch the Dodgers. It's not OK if every single subscriber has to pay for it whether they like it or not. At that point, it basically becomes a baseball tax on every TV viewer in Southern California.

Of course, this is just another way of saying what Lopez said: Everyone involved in this fiasco has overpaid. Time-Warner is demanding that their Dodgers channel be added to basic cable because they know they can never justify their purchase price if they can only get subscription revenue from the one-half or one-third of all households who actually care about the Dodgers. So they're holding out for the tax.

I'd like to see the Dodgers on TV, but I hope everyone holds out forever anyway. It's time for a revolt against the absurd spiral in prices for sports teams, and maybe historians will eventually point to this as the straw that finally broke the sports bubble. But that all depends on how long everyone can hold out.

Read the Supreme Court's Unanimous Decision Telling Cops They Need a Warrant to Search Your Cellphone

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

Read our explainer of the decision here.

 

Supreme Court Unanimously Supports Common Sense in Cell Phone Search Case

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 10:54 AM EDT

The latest from the Supreme Court:

Police may not search the smartphones of people who are put under arrest unless they have a warrant, the Supreme Court has ruled, a unanimous and surprising victory for privacy advocates.

The justices, ruling in cases from California and Massachusetts, said the 4th Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" prevents a police officer from examining a cellphone found on or near a person who is arrested.

See? I told you the Supreme Court was a remarkably agreeable place. And in this case, they were remarkably agreeable even though lower courts had split on this issue and it could easily have broken down along normal left (yay civil liberties!) and right (yay law enforcement!) lines. Instead, all nine of the justices did the right thing. For a brief moment, we can all celebrate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 25, 2014

Wed Jun. 25, 2014 9:32 AM EDT

Soldiers partner with community members in Augusta, Georgia for a physical readiness training event. Civilians get the chance to experience life in uniform. (US Army photo by Ashley Armstrong, 35th Signal Brigade Public Affairs)

How the Sweetener Industry Sugar-Coats Science

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food companies have spent billions of dollars to cover up the link between sugar consumption and health problems. That's the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

sugar industry lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The industry's tactics—similar to those used by Big Tobacco in downplaying the adverse health effects of smoking—were explored by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens in the 2012 Mother Jones investigation "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies." But this latest report draws on some newly released documents submitted as evidence in a recent federal court case involving the two biggest players in the sweetener industry: the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association (the trade group for manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup). 

The report details companies' plans to bury data and to convince consumers that sugar is "fine in moderation." It also shows how trade groups hired independent scientists to cast doubt on studies that show the adverse affects of sugar consumption—and strategized to intimidate scientists and organizations who didn't tow the industry line.

For example: The researchers cite a 2003 letter, first obtained by Mother Jones, from the president and CEO of the Sugar Association to the director general of the World Health Organization. In the letter, the Sugar Association intimates that it will deny funding to the WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization if the groups don't pull a report that shows that added sugars "threaten the nutritional quality of diets." Another internal document claimed the action worked:

"We have been successful in getting the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) to oppose the WHO Diet and Nutrition Report 916 calling for 10% consumption of sugar, we have been successful in getting the U.S. WHO representative Dr. Steiger to express major concerns with Report 916 and call for edits to the initial draft of the WHO Global Strategy recommending to limit sugar intake."

Sure enough, when The World Health Assembly (the WHO's decision-making body) released its global health strategy on diet and health in 2005, the study in question wasn't referenced once.

General Mills sugar lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The report's authors hope that the new findings will influence the ongoing battle over school lunches eaten by 32 million children each day. In 2013, both General Mills and the Sugar Association weighed in on proposed lunch standards, dismissing the connection between sugar and health problems. According to the report, "the USDA adopted a weaker rule than it first proposed, limiting kids' sugar intake at school by weight rather than by calorie as public health experts had recommended." If the current agriculture appropriations bill is approved in an upcoming congressional vote, schools will be allowed to opt out of new USDA rules that require cafeterias to provide more fruits and vegetables in students' lunches.

The authors also hope to hasten change on food labels. The FDA is currently evaluating proposed revisions that would require manufacturers to list added sugars separately from those that occur naturally. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Washington D.C. Six trade groups, including the Corn Refiners Association, the American Frozen Foods Institute, and the National Confectioners Association, have already pushed on the FDA to postpone while they complete "consumer perception research," on the proposed changes. Representatives from the Center for Science and Democracy plan to present the results of the study to encourage officials to move forward with the new labels.

You can read the full report here

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The Tea Party Is Now on the Road to Oblivion

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 12:15 AM EDT

Now that incumbent Thad Cochran has beaten Chris McDaniel in Mississippi's Republican Senate primary, does that mean the tea party is officially a spent force? After all, when Eric Cantor lost in Virginia, it was a sign of the ultimate and permanent victory of the tea party over the Republican mainstream, forever and ever, world without end. American politics would never be the same! But that was two weeks ago, and we're all bored with that meme, right? It's only fair that we now spend a couple of weeks hyperventilating over a new meme.

Long live the Republican mainstream!

UPDATE: Bah. I see that Dave Weigel beat me to this joke. Plus he has a lot more detail about tonight's actual election results.

What's a Liberal to Think About the Great Import-Export Bank Foofaraw?

| Tue Jun. 24, 2014 7:51 PM EDT

Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, everybody's talking about the Export-Import Bank today. Isn't that exciting? I have some thoughts about this myself, if you'll hold on for just a minute.

Tick, tick, tick.....

Hmmm. The Wikipedia entry was too long to read so I just skimmed it. Still, that should get me up to speed about as much as everyone else who's become an instant expert today. In a nutshell, the Ex-Im Bank provides subsidies for American exporters. If, say, Malaysian Airlines wants to buy a few Boeing 777s, Ex-Im will provide them with a low-interest loan for that purpose. This is basically just a way of making the purchase price lower, and the benefit of this subsidy is divided between Boeing and Malaysian Airlines. As with all subsidies, the precise division of the split between the buyer and the seller presumably depends on the elasticity of something or other, yada yada yada. Ask an economist for details.

But what should you, as a good liberal, think about all this? Killing Ex-Im is basically a conservative hobbyhorse, but plenty of lefties have weighed in too. Dean Baker points out that an interest rate subsidy is basically the same as a tariff, so if you're in favor of free trade you should be opposed to Ex-Im. Paul Krugman admits that Ex-Im is mercantilist and therefore a bad idea—except when the economy is weak and monetary policy is up against the zero lower bound. Which it is, so Ex-Im acts as an economic stimulus, more or less, and we should probably keep it around for now. On a political note, Greg Sargent points out that deep-sixing Ex-Im may become the scalp tea partiers claim for their defeat of Eric Cantor, who was a big supporter.

Elsewhere, Matt Yglesias tells us that opposition to Ex-Im was largely driven by Delta Airlines, which was tired of seeing its foreign competitors get subsidies to buy their airplanes. The Wall Street Journal reports that four Ex-Im officials have been suspended or removed recently "amid investigations into allegations of gifts and kickbacks," and Danny Vinik says these charges should be a warning for liberals. "If they prove true, then officials are choosing winners and losers based on kickbacks. And that should make the decision easy for liberals: Join with conservatives and oppose the reauthorization of the Export-Import bank."

Meanwhile, a friend emails "Feel the schadenfreude!" after reading a Politico piece about how the Texas business community is feeling glum because Rep. Jeb Hensarling, normally one of their darlings, is dead set on killing Ex-Im. "The bank supported exports worth around $3.68 billion in fiscal year 2013," says the story, "ranking the Lone Star State third among states in amount financed." I guess them's the breaks when you get into bed with a true believer.

This is probably already a lot more than you ever wanted to know about the Export-Import Bank, so I'll stop. As for whether we keep it or kill it, it's hard to make much of a case for keeping it except (a) as Krugman points out, it doesn't cost us anything at the moment, and (b) every other country does it too. You may decide for yourself whether you find those reasons persuasive.

Oh, and the tea party hates it, for the usual obscure reasons that the tea party hates things you've never heard of. Perhaps that will sway you too.

Chris McDaniel Campaigns With Bizarre Obama Conspiracy Theorist

| Tue Jun. 24, 2014 6:21 PM EDT

Tea party favorite Chris McDaniel spent the final weekend before Tuesday's Mississippi Republican senatorial run-off campaigning with a conspiracy theorist who has alleged that President Barack Obama is a "Manchurian candidate" working as part of a secret plan to "destroy the country."

The remarks, first reported by Right Wing Watch, were made by former Libertarian presidential candidate Wayne Allyn Root who has been pushing this anti-Obama charge for years. This past weekend, Root—who was a classmate of the president at Columbia University—traveled throughout Mississippi on a bus paid for by the Tea Party Express and spoke at rallies in support of McDaniel, who is trying to defeat incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in a hotly contested race. McDaniel accompanied the bus for three events this past weekend.

During a rally in Biloxi, McDaniel took the stage after Root fired up the crowd with his anti-Obama rant. At that event, Root noted that the shadowy effort dates back to the early 1980s:

It's a purposeful plan to wipe out America, capitalism, the middle class, and destroy American exceptionalism and Judeo-Christian values. How do I know? Listen to this, folks. Because I'm Barack Obama's college classmate, Columbia University class of '83. And when I was there at Columbia, we all studied a plan called Cloward–Piven—if you've ever watched Glenn Beck—Cloward–Piven. And we studied Saul Alinsky. And the plan was get someone elected president, who looks fantastic, who has a beautiful wife, a beautiful children. A family man. Get him to cut his afro or his long hair, his ponytail. Put on a suit, and then lie to everybody. Make sure they know he's a moderate, not a communist...and then destroy the country by overwhelming the system with spending, with taxes, with regulations, with debt, with entitlements, with food stamps. Overwhelm it until it collapses."

Root went on to explain the covert plan, suggesting that Obama didn't really attend Columbia:

We both graduated on the same day. We both graduated political science majors. We both graduated pre-law. And I knew every human being at Columbian University in the political science department. And they all knew me. Seven hundred students. One Reagan conservative—me. And 699 Marxist communists and socialists. And you know who I didn't know? Never met him, never heard of him, never saw him. Didn't know another student at Columbia who ever met him, knew him, or saw. Barack Hussein Obama! Isn't that amazing! Now I just got back from my 30th college reunion and I searched out every one of my classmates who ever knew Barack Obama. Not one. Ladies and gentlemen, our nation is now being run by the Manchurian candidate. The real-life Manchurian candidate.

Before and during the campaign, McDaniel has showed no reluctance to associate himself with advocates of extreme right-wing views. He has hobnobbed with neo-Confederates and anti-gay crusaders. None of this has become a campaign issue.

Arab Spring-Inspired Show "Tyrant" Had Plenty of Muslim, Arab Input

| Tue Jun. 24, 2014 5:42 PM EDT

Tyrant—a bloody, tense family drama that just so happens to be set in an Arab dictatorship—is a TV show that feels destined for controversy. And that's familiar territory for  showrunner Howard Gordon, best known for his work on the hyper-controversial, torture-heavy 24.

The new series, created by Gideon Raff, tells the story of Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed (played by Adam Rayner), the son of a brutal dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern country, as he reluctantly returns to the family business from a happy life in the United States after two decade living in self-exile. (Think The Godfather meets the Assads.) Tyrant premieres Tuesday night on FX—and Gordon has been gearing up for any potential backlash it might bring his way:

"Bring it on!" Gordon told reporters in January.

"Come on, Roger [Ailes]!" he joked. "I've been called an Islamophobe and a torture monger, so what else can they call me?"

I've only seen the first episode (which is visually gorgeous and rather compelling), so I have no idea why the series might possibly piss off the Fox News president or his platoon of commentators. However, it certainly isn't hard to imagine that a TV show focused on trigger-happy, iron-fisted Arab Muslims might irk certain groups and people concerned about negative stereotypes and hackneyed cultural depictions in American entertainment. But Gordon has taken steps to assure potential viewers that he was more than aware of such concerns, and acted accordingly. More on that from the Daily Beast, which interviewed him: 

Howard Gordon has done something different with Tyrant: He has included Arab-Americans and Muslims in the creative process. As Gordon explained to [the Daily Beast], his motivation in doing this arose from being "concerned that there might be potential sensitivities that I may not be aware of."

Gordon did a few things to include Arabs and Muslim voices in Tyrant…For one, he hired an Arab-American for the writing staff. Plus he reached out to a well-known Muslim-American group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), over a year ago for their input on early drafts of the pilot script.

As Gordon explained: "MPAC has had a significant impact on the development of this project from its inception." Gordon added: "I tried to address their concerns regarding cultural inaccuracies and potentially incendiary characterizations. I may not always have been entirely successful, but the dialogue has always been open and fluid."

Suhad Obeidi, the head of the Hollywood bureau of MPAC, spoke positively about the experience of working with Gordon. Obeidi explained that Gordon truly did revise the script in many—not all—places flagged by MPAC.

It wouldn't be the first time that Gordon consulted a Muslim-American group regarding controversial content. When the Washington, DC-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reached out to Fox and 24's producers to express concerns over the fourth season of 24 (which features a Muslim-American Los Angeles family that leads an Islamist sleeper cell), they responded by inviting CAIR representatives out for a meeting in LA to share their thoughts and criticism. In the months and years that followed, CAIR and the 24 crew maintained an open dialogue.

"They were very, very receptive," Rabiah Ahmed, a former CAIR employee who attended the meeting, told me. "Howard Gordon was such a gentleman. He pulled me aside after the meeting and said their intentions were never to harm the community, and that they are very sensitive about how we feel, and how their work impacts the larger society…I was very touched by his sincerity."

Still, Gordon's latest offering has attracted some harsh words from a familiar organization: "[CAIR has] asked reviewers to address stereotyping of Arab and Muslim culture inherent in the new FX Networks series Tyrant," the group wrote in a press release last week.

Now, here's an FX "first look" at Tyrant: