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Obama on Bill Cosby Allegations: If You Drug a Woman and Have Sex With Her, It's Rape

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 2:45 PM EDT

On Wednesday, President Obama responded to a question about Bill Cosby's ongoing rape allegations, specifically as to whether the comedian's Medal of Freedom award would be revoked.

"There is no precedent for revoking a medal. We don't have that mechanism. And as you know I tend not to comment on the specifics of cases where there might still be, if not criminal, civil issues involved," he said.

But after a brief pause, and without specifically naming Cosby, Obama issued a strong condemnation of the allegations.

"If you give a woman or a man without his or her knowledge a drug and then have sex with that person without consent that's rape. And I think this country and any civilized country should have no tolerance for rape."

Last week, a judge unsealed documents from a 2005 legal deposition in which Cosby admitted to giving Quaaludes to a woman and then having sex with her.

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The Technical Experts Weigh In, And They're Pretty Impressed With the Iran Deal

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Arms control guru Jeffrey Lewis has long been skeptical that we could conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. Now that we have, he's pored through the entire document and he says he's impressed:

Max Fisher: Why is this a good deal?

Jeffrey Lewis: It's a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we're very likely to find out, and to do so with a enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There's a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That's why it's a good deal.

....Max Fisher: A lot of what you wrote throughout 2014 was skeptical. Not of the idea of the Iran deal, but rather skeptical that they could make it work, that they would get there in time, that they would have all the right conditions.

Jeffrey Lewis: That's right. I had no faith whatsoever that they could pull this off.

Max Fisher: Now that we're here, what grade would you give it?

Jeffrey Lewis: I would give it an A.

....Max Fisher: We did a post just rounding up tweets from arms control analysts on what they're saying about the Iran deal, and it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the non-proliferation merits. Maybe there are some we just missed, but it seems like the consensus was overwhelmingly positive, which was so interesting to me because it's very different from the conversation among Middle East policy analysts, which is much more divided. Why do you think that is?

Jeffrey Lewis: ....As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don't look this good....I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, "Does it slow it down?" Yes. "Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?" Yes. "Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?" Yes. "Okay, good deal."

This is the kind of feedback I've been waiting for. Do technical experts who actually understand the nuances of the deal language think this is a good agreement? And apparently most of them do.

Conversely, the critics have mostly been focused on the fact that the deal eventually lifts the economic sanctions on Iran that have been in place for the past few years. This will improve the Iranian economy and give them more money to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis.

This is true, of course, but it was the whole point of the negotiations from the start. To oppose it on those grounds is basically to say that we should simply keep the sanctions in place forever. But that's not even remotely feasible. Sanctions never last forever, especially when they have to be upheld by the entire international community. If the US flatly refused to negotiate, eventually the Chinese and Russians would drop out of the sanctions regime, followed by the Europeans, and then we'd be the only ones left. And sanctions from the US alone just wouldn't have much impact on Iran.

In other words, the arguments in favor of the treaty are looking a whole lot more thoughtful and realistic than the arguments against it. But it's primary season for Republicans, so I suppose that doesn't matter all that much. Iran is bad, therefore a deal with Iran is bad. It's good enough for the campaign trail.

Do Republicans Really Want to Scuttle the Iran Deal?

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 11:43 AM EDT

Greg Sargent reports that Republicans are gearing up to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal:

Republicans are very, very confident that they have the political advantage in the coming battle in Congress over the historic Iran deal announced yesterday. Multiple news reports today tell us that Republicans are gearing up their “attack plan,” and those reports are overflowing with GOP bravado.

Well, of course they are. That's just smart politics. If you want to build a bandwagon, you have to act like a winner.

In fact, though, Republicans have very little chance of blocking the deal. To do so they have to vote to disapprove the agreement, which President Obama will veto. Then they have to round up a two-thirds vote to override the veto. That's very, very unlikely.

(And why this odd procedure where the deal takes effect unless Congress disapproves it? They can thank one of their own, Sen. Bob Corker, for proposing this unusual procedure. And anyway, his legislation passed 98-1, so it was pretty unanimously the will of the Senate. The theory behind it was that Obama could simply enact any deal as an executive order without involving Congress at all, and this was at least better than that.)

But then Sargent brings up another one of those 11-dimensional chess conundrums:

But here’s the question: Once all the procedural smoke clears, do Republicans really want an endgame in which they succeeded in blocking the deal? Do they actually want to scuttle it?

Perhaps many of them genuinely do want that. But here’s a prediction: as this battle develops, some Republicans may privately conclude that it would be better for them politically if they fail to stop it. The Iran debate may come to resemble the one over the anti-Obamacare lawsuit that also recently fell short.

The idea here is that if Congress kills the deal, several things will happen. First, the rest of the signatories (UK, France, Germany, EU, China, Russia) will still lift their sanctions if Iran meets its end of the bargain. So that means the sanctions regime will effectively disintegrate. Second, our allies will blame us for tanking the deal. Third, Iran will have an excuse for pushing the boundaries of the agreement and remaining closer to nuclear breakout than they would be if the deal were intact.

And Republicans would take the bulk of the blame for all this. Do they really want that? This is an international agreement, after all. Conservatives like Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Vladimir Putin have approved it. If we don't, will they conclude that the US is no longer a partner worth negotiating with? These are things worth pondering, especially if Republicans expect one of their own to be president 18 months from now.

Poll: Lincoln Chafee Has No Supporters

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 11:18 AM EDT

A month and a half into his presidential campaign, Lincoln Chafee is having trouble connecting with voters—even a single one. A Monmouth University poll released today reports that the Democratic presidential candidate "registered no support."

To be clear, this does not just mean that the former Rhode Island governor got 0 percent of the vote, leaving room for him to receive some votes but not enough to amount to 1 percent. No: Chafee received exactly zero votes in the poll, according to a research associate at Monmouth University. The poll surveyed 1,001 adults and included 357 Democratic or Democratic-leaning registered voters in the results.

Just 9 percent of respondents to the poll have a favorable opinion of Chafee, largely because 78 percent have no opinion of the little-known candidate. Efforts to boost his name recognition haven't been helped by the fact that he's raised hardly any money and has even been locked out of his own Facebook account. The Chafee campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Monmouth University

 

Planned Parenthood "Sting" Video Is Yet Another Right-Wing Nothingburger

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

Yesterday I watched the (now infamous) hidden video from the Center for Medical Progress, which allegedly shows a couple of undercover "buyers" for a fetal tissue procurement company having lunch with Deborah Nucatola, director of medical services for Planned Parenthood. And it was obviously pretty fishy. Nucatola was talking very openly about how they dispose of fetal tissue from abortions, and doing it in a way that exhibited no stress and no sense at all of being involved in a shady operation. The price per specimen was $30-100,which obviously covered no more than shipping and normal handling. It plainly wasn't enough for this to be an illegal for-profit business.

So I shrugged and went on with my day. Then the video landed on the front page of the Washington Post and it went mainstream. I assume Fox has been running it on a 24/7 loop as well. But as near as I can tell, it's completely bogus. The video tries to imply that Planned Parenthood is performing illegal abortions and that it's selling fetal tissue for profit, also a felony. But there's not the slightest evidence of either. In fact, as Media Matters points out, if you watch the unedited video it's crystal clear that the charges for the fetal tissue they sell are designed only to cover the actual costs of the process. Nucatola says repeatedly that affiliates want to "break even," not make a profit.

So there's basically nothing here. Bioethicists have been debating for years whether it's a good idea to sell fetal tissue, and as you can imagine, they've been disagreeing for years and show no signs of ever coming to a consensus. Some think it's wrong and some think it's OK. That's not surprising since some people think abortion is wrong and some think it's OK. And if you think abortion is wrong, you're certainly not going to be happy about the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

Nonetheless, it's a common practice, and one that's critical for a lot of medical research. What's more, it's only done if the mother wants the tissue donated.

So: scandal? Not hardly. Is it wrong? If you think abortion is murder, then of course you think it's wrong. If you think abortion is morally benign, as I do, then you're glad to see donated tissue being used in important medical research. And that's pretty much that. In the end, this is just another sad attempt at a sting video that goes nowhere once you get beyond the deceptive editing. It's time for conservatives to find a different toy to manufacture fundraising opportunities for their base.

Sorry, Foodies: We're About to Ruin Kale

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
If eating kale is good for me, then eating a whole lot it must be even better. Right?

How hipster is kale? For $28, Urban Outfitters will sell you a kale t-shirt. To prep for a big blizzard in early 2015, residents of a trendy Brooklyn section cleaned out the kale bins of their neighborhood Whole Foods. And what would the juicing craze be without it?

Kale is really good at taking up thallium—a toxic heavy metal—from the soil.

But today's kale-fixated juice-heads may doing themselves a disservice.

That's a possibility raised by an article in Craftsmanship magazine by Todd Oppenheimer. The piece doesn't establish a definitive link between heavy kale consumption and any health problem, but it does raise the question of whether too much of even a highly nutritious food like kale can have unhappy side effects.

The article focuses on an alt-medicine researcher and molecular biologist named Ernie Hubbard, who began to notice an odd trend among some of his clinic's clients in California's Marin County, a place known for its organic farms, health-food stores, and yoga studios. Extremely health-conscious people were coming into to complain of "persistent but elusive problems": "Chronic fatigue. Skin and hair issues. Arrhythmias and other neurological disorders. Foggy thinking. Gluten sensitivity and other digestive troubles. Sometimes even the possibility of Lyme Disease."

Hubbard began to find detectable levels of a toxic heavy metal called thallium in patients' blood samples—at higher-than-normal leves—as well as in kale leaves from the region. Meanwhile, "over and over," he found that patients complaining of symptoms associated with low-level thallium poisoning—fatigue, brain fog, etc.—would also be heavy eaters of kale and related vegetables, like cabbage.

And he found, in the form of this 2006 peer-reviewed paper by Czech researchers, evidence that kale is really good at taking up thallium from soil. The paper concluded that kale's ability to accumulate soil-borne thallium is "very high and can be a serious danger for food chains." And here's a peer-reviewed 2013 paper from Chinese researchers finding similar results with green cabbage; a 2015 Chinese study finding green cabbage is so good at extracting thallium from soil that it can be used for "phytoremediation"—i.e., purifying soil of a toxin—and a 2001 one from a New Zealand team finding formidable thallium-scrounging powers in three other members of the brassica family: watercress, radishes, and turnips.

Now, just because kale and other brassicas can effectively take up thallium from soil doesn't mean that they always contain thallium. The metal has to find its way into soil first. It exists at low levels in the Earth's crust, and the main way it gets concentrated at high enough levels to cause worry is through "nearby cement plants, oil drilling, smelting, and, most of all, in the ash that results from coal burning," Oppenheimer reports. The researcher he profiled, Hubbard, has so far not succeeded in nailing down the source of the thallium that he found in his kale samples.

And there's also the question of quantity. One of Hubbard's patients with heightened thallium levels in her urine and mild symptoms of thallium poisoning ate so much cabbage over the years that  she called herself the "cabbage queen." When she "cut way back" on her favorite vegetable, she tells Oppenheimer, her thallium levels dropped, and her symptoms improved. 

Where does all of this evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, leave us—beyond the need of much more research on US-grown kale? There's nothing here that makes me want to stop eating brassicas, probably my favorite vegetable genus and one undeniably loaded with many valuable nutrients.

But it does make me wary of downing brassicas daily at great quantities over extended periods, the way some people may be doing as part of the juice craze. This recipe for "mean green juice," for example, calls for six to eight kale leaves in a single serving—much more than most of us would consume in a side dish of sautéed kale. In all great things—wine, butter, ice cream, even kale—moderation makes sense.

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The IMF Throws a Monkey Wrench Into the Greek Soap Opera

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 12:26 AM EDT

The Greek drama continues. Just as it appears that Greece has capitulated to every demand short of selling off the Parthenon, one-third of the Troika1 is having second thoughts:

The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

The aggressive stance sets up a standoff with Germany and other eurozone creditors, which have been reluctant to provide additional debt relief.

Reluctant? Yeah, I guess you could put it that way. But it would be a mite more accurate to say that it will be a cold day in hell before Angela Merkel agrees to any debt relief for Greece.

In any case, there's a weird kabuki-like character to this whole thing. Everybody agrees that Greece will never pay back all the debt it owes. Just not gonna happen. So why don't Greece's creditors bite the bullet and face reality? It's not because the Germans and others are stupid and don't realize they're never getting all their money back. It's because....

Well, it's not entirely clear why. Officially, Germany says that under EU treaties it's illegal to forgive debt. I'm not sure anyone really believes that, though. Unofficially, no one wants to write down the debt because it's the thing that keeps Greece under the EU lash. The only reason Europe can demand draconian austerity measures from Greece is because they can threaten to withhold the loans Greece needs to keep servicing its massive debt. This would throw Greece into default and economic chaos—which is precisely the threat that forced Greece to accept the European terms for a new bailout a few days ago.

Still, why not write down a big chunk of the debt? There would still be enough left to keep Greece under control. This is where things get even fuzzier. One answer is that it sets an uncomfortable precedent. If Greece gets a big debt writedown, why shouldn't Portugal and Spain and Italy? Another answer is that the size of the Greek debt really does matter, if only cosmetically. Europe wants Greece to cut its spending and run a balanced budget. The bigger Greece's debt service, the more it has to cut spending to achieve balance.

Does any of this make sense? Sure, from a certain point of view—namely that of a European public that's fed up with Greece and doesn't want its leaders using their tax dollars to pull Greece's fat out of the fire. But the IMF doesn't have to worry about European public opinion. It wants to face reality and just admit what everyone already knows. And here's the reality. First, even with a big writedown, Greece will still be safely under the Troika's thumb. Second, from an economist's perspective all that matters about Greece's finances is that it achieves primary budget balance—that is, balance not counting debt payments. So the IMF doesn't care about squeezing the Greek budget beyond all reason based on an artificial debt number.

In any case, the IMF has supported debt relief for some time, but has only now decided to go public as a way of exerting pressure on Europe. Will it work? No telling. As always, stay tuned. The soap opera never ends.

1For those of you who haven't been following this stuff religiously, the Troika consists of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. These are the three entities that Greece owes money to.

Maybe We Should All Read the Iran Deal Before We Take a Stand On It

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 2:27 PM EDT

Paul Waldman has already rounded up a few Republican reactions to the Iran deal, so I'll just steal this paragraph from him:

Scott Walker said it “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” Jeb Bush called it “dangerous, deeply flawed, and short-sighted.” Marco Rubio said it “undermines our national security.” And as usual, Lindsey Graham wins the award for the most unhinged conclusions: the deal is “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel,” he told Bloomberg News. He also said: “You’ve created a possible death sentence for Israel.”

And here's some more:

"This ‘deal’ will only embolden Iran," said House Speaker John Boehner. It "appears to further the flawed elements of April’s interim agreement," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And even Bob Corker was critical: "I begin from a place of deep skepticism that the deal actually meets the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

So here's the thing: Not a single one of these comments suggests why the deal is such a bad one. It just is. We're left with two possibilities:

  1. All of these guys have read the agreement, and they have specific criticisms but just don't feel like sharing those with us.
  2. They haven't read the agreement and have no real idea what's in it, but oppose it anyway.

I'm going with Door #2. Anyone want to take the other side of that bet?

And by the way, in the interest of fairness you could say pretty much the same thing about a lot of liberals, who seem to be jubilant about the deal but haven't really explained exactly what's so great about it. Maybe all of us could stand to take a deep breath and spend some time letting experts examine the deal language before taking maximal positions on it.

In the meantime, it looks like a decent agreement to me after a first look at the deal outline—certainly better than doing nothing and letting Iran build a bomb whenever it wants, anyway. But I'll wait to see what nuclear experts have to say before I go any further. A few days won't kill me.

UPDATE: Obviously not everyone agrees with me. A spokesman for Hillary Clinton said the Iran deal was "a really good first step," etc., but "at the same time, she also is going to read it." National Review's Patrick Brennan is having none of it:

Yes, it’s a long agreement, only released to the public early this morning, but that has stopped almost no one on earth from forming an opinion of whether they think it is a good or bad deal by this afternoon. The questions at hand are complicated, but not that complicated. As with the trade debate (until the very last minute), Hillary Clinton isn’t deliberating, she’s obfuscating.

So there you have it. Everyone else formed an opinion instantly without bothering to read the actual agreement, so what the hell is up with Hillary? She should be ashamed of herself for showing an interest in anything other than affinity outrage (or glee). Reading is for appeasers.

Highways Are Now Being Held Hostage to Lower Corporate Taxes

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 1:16 PM EDT

I somehow missed that this was a real thing, but apparently there are finally serious moves afoot to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Will this happen by sensibly returning the gasoline tax to its old rate? Don't be silly. Instead we're going to do it in the least sensible way possible:

A bipartisan proposal, to be introduced soon in Congress, would tax the estimated $2 trillion in foreign profits held by U.S. corporations in overseas accounts....The tax would generate tens of billions of dollars for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which will run out of money at the end of the month. Lawmakers have been in a desperate scramble to replenish the fund, which helps pay for new roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

....Supporters said the plan would reduce incentives for companies to reincorporate overseas, a controversial tax-reducing tactic known as inversion that has drawn the ire of Democrats...."These proposals would right the ship, provide a potential funding source for transportation reauthorization and allow the United States to compete on a level playing field," [Sen. Chuck Schumer] said.

Hold on. We're going to take all those overseas profits that are currently untaxed, and levy a one-time tax on them in order to fund roads and bridges? Why would Republicans and the business community support this? Here's why:

"In a perfect world, you wouldn't tie tax reform to the Highway Trust Fund," said Curtis S. Dubay, a tax expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But lawmakers see the need to find highway funding "as a forcing mechanism to get something done" on international taxes.

A "forcing mechanism"? Please go on:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Assn. of Manufacturers have said they opposed a forced repatriation of foreign earnings simply to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

But including it as part of a shift from the current international tax system — a move that would reduce corporate tax bills over the long term — changes the equation, said Dorothy Coleman, who handles tax policy for the manufacturers group.

....Business groups want changes to the international tax system to be made as part of a broader overhaul that includes lowering the corporate tax rate for domestic earnings as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that he prefers a comprehensive tax overhaul.

Roger that. The business community is willing to support a small, one-time gimmick that will cost around $200 billion or so—and free them to repatriate all their foreign earnings and bring that money back to the US—but only if it's tied to a large, permanent corporate tax change that will save them far more in the long run. Suddenly it all makes sense.

The devil is in the details, of course, and those won't be available for months. If the final bill is revenue neutral on corporate taxes, maybe this is a decent short-term dodge. If it cuts corporate taxes significantly, then not so much. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: The Minimum Wage is Lame, Dude

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 12:10 PM EDT

From boring Midwestern governor Scott Walker:

The left claims that they’re for American workers and they’ve just got just really lame ideas — things like the minimum wage.

Well, there are some economists who would agree with him, but essentially no ordinary Americans. The minimum wage is almost as beloved as Social Security. In fact, ordinary Americans not only like the minimum wage, but about 70 percent of them think it should be raised. So Walker is definitely taking a bold stand here.

Oddly enough, as Steve Benen points out, this has become sort of a thing among Republicans lately. They've always opposed increases to the minimum wage, of course, but now a lot of them oppose the minimum wage itself. Where has this suddenly come from? Perhaps someone who follows the right-wing idea network can give us a rundown. I mean, sure, Milton Friedman opposed the minimum wage, but conservatives apparently abandoned anything remotely Friedmanesque during the Great Recession. So it can't be that.

So what is it? Why has this suddenly jumped from mumblings in Heritage Foundation white papers to campaign platforms for presidential candidates?