A couple of days ago I whined about the annoyingly widespread humanization of Olympic athletes. Enough! We all know that what's really important about sporting events is statistics, and the more obscure the better. So here are my candidates for nerdiest Olympic coverage so far. First up is Ryan Wallerson's look at the best athletes of the Sochi games. Not by measuring scores or times or anything normal like that, but by measuring which athlete scored the most standard deviations from the mean in their event. The winner is Poland's Kamil Stoch in ski jumping:
Next up is a look at which countries have done the best. Not by crudely counting medals or per capita medals or any of that nonsense. This chart looks how countries have done so far compared to how many medals they were predicted to win. The big winner, at 183 percent, is the Netherlands, thanks to their kick-ass performance in speed skating. The most dismal performance so far is from South Korea, at 31 percent. But there are still two days left!
On Thursday, John Hudson at Foreign Policy reported that actor Ben Affleck is set to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next Wednesday to testify on the mass killings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Affleck's inclusion among the experts scheduled to testify invited some predictable skepticism and ridicule. In response to the news, Washington Post digital foreign editor Anup Kaphle tweeted, "zzzzzz..." National Review correspondent Jim Geraghty joked, "If a Congressman asks about his qualifications as a Congo expert, Ben Affleck should simply answer, 'I'm Batman.'"
"People serious about resolving problems—especially problems related to life and death—want to have serious conversations with experts and leaders in the field; not celebrities," a Republican aide at the House Foreign Affairs Committee told Foreign Policy's "The Cable." (House Republicans reportedly declined to hold a similar, Affleck-inclusive event.)
It's pretty easy to laugh at the idea of the Gigli and Pearl Harbor star now lecturing senators on atrocities in Central Africa. But the Oscar-winning future Batman knows his stuff. He isn't some celebrity who just happened to open his mouth about a humanitarian cause (think: Paris Hilton and Rwanda). The acclaimed Argo director has repeatedly traveled to Congo and has even met with warlords accused of atrocities. Here's his 2008 report from the country for ABC's Nightline, in which he discusses mass rape, war, and survival:
Affleck previously testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the humanitarian crisis in the African nation. That same year, he made the mediarounds with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) to discuss renewed violence in Congo. In 2011, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee. In 2010, Affleck founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, an advocacy and grant-making 501(c)(3) organization. On top of all that, he made this video this month (in which he and Matt Damon humorously trade insults) to help raise money for the Initiative.
So, are there experts who know more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo than Ben Affleck? Of course—and some of them will also testify before the Senate committee next week. But celebrities testifying before Congress, or heading to the Hill to make their case, isn't exactly new. Harrison Ford has swung by the House and Senate to talk about planes, and Val Kilmer visited Capitol Hill last year to push for the expansion of Americans' ability to claim religious exemptions to Obamacare's health insurance mandate.
With Affleck, you get testimony from a famous person who has really done his homework.
Click here to check out our interactive map of celebrity humanitarian efforts in (and the"celebrity recolonization" of) Africa.
Apropos of this, I sometimes wonder if people even realize that the full Social Security retirement age for everyone under age 55 is now 67? There's still a small chunk of people between 55-65 for whom the full retirement age is 66, but they're the last of the Mohicans. Once they've aged out, the retirement age will be 67 for everyone.
So when you hear people talk about increasing the retirement age, keep in mind that it's already 67. If for some insane reason you still think that increasing the retirement age is the best way to deal with Social Security's finances, keep in mind that you'd need to bump it up to 70 to really make a difference. Does anyone think that makes sense?
I'm just guessing here, but I suspect one of the reasons this remains widely unrecognized is that so many people retire early. And you can still do that. The age for early retirement is still 62. The difference is that back when 65 was the full retirement age, you got 80 percent of your normal benefit if you retired early. These days it's 75 percent. A decade from now it will be 70 percent. What this means is that for people who retire early, monthly benefits will have been reduced by about $150 over the first two decades of this century.
That's a pretty substantial cut for someone in the working class who probably doesn't have much in the way of savings. Does anyone really think we need to cut benefits for these folks even more?
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is on her last tour in Congress. She's not seeking reelection and will leave the House after 2014. (A plum cable news gig is almost assuredly waiting for her once she reenters the private sector.) In the meantime, she's sticking to her usual habits: making offensive statements. In an interview published Wednesday, Bachmann said that Barack Obama won the presidency because white people felt too guilty about past racial injustices. "I think there was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt," she said in an interview with Cal Thomas, a syndicated conservative columnist.
Bachmann didn't stop there. She thinks Hillary Clinton has poor odds of winning the presidency in 2016. "People don't hold guilt for a woman," she said, explaining that much of the country isn't prepared to elect a women as president. "I don’t think there is a pent-up desire."
It's an odd view for Bachmann to hold. After all, she herself tried to become the first female president when she ran for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination, and she briefly led the polls in Iowa before her campaign cratered, forcing her to drop out the morning after the Iowa caucuses. But these new doubts about the public's willingness to vote for a woman to be president could be a projection based on that sour experience. A poll from last month found that 77 percent of voters expect the country to elect a female president within the next decade. Americans are ready for a female president, just not Bachmann.
What can Americans do with this conflict that it cannot win? The most useful thing, I think, is to use it to understand the nature of the threat to freedom we're seeing these days, in Ukraine and around the world. Viktor Yanukovich is a democratically elected president who has used his powers to eliminate liberal-rights safeguards and jail political opponents on dubious charges. He has reinforced his political position by building cronyistic relationships with powerful business figures. In this system the state creates economic rents and awards them to favoured business interests, who in turn buttress the state's political power, all while maintaining the trappings of democracy.
In other words, Ukraine looks a lot like Russia or Egypt; more significantly, it looks like other states that are in the early stages of similar threats to liberal democracy, such as Turkey and Hungary. The enemy of liberal democracy today is more often kleptocracy, or "illiberal democracy" (as tiger-mom Amy Chua put it in her book "World on Fire"), than ideological totalitarianism. The threat is less obvious than in the days of single-party states and military dictators. But it ends up in the same place: economic stagnation, a corrupt elite of businessmen and politicians, censored media, and riot police shooting demonstrators.
It is not clear that America has the political appetite to do much more than watch and deplore what's happening in Kiev. It is not clear that the country could accomplish much anyway....So we are left watching the latest in a years-long string of depressing, violent reversals of democracy around the world, from the defeat of the green protests in Iran to the failure of Egypt's peaceful democratic revolution and the endless succession of red-yellow street battles in Bangkok. The crackdown in Kiev is perhaps the most depressing of all: the memory of the 2004 Orange Revolution drives home the point that peaceful democratic transitions often don't stick, and that the spread of the zone of liberal democracy is not inevitable. The most we can do is recognise what the threat to freedom looks like today, impose sanctions, offer asylum to political refugees and make it perfectly clear where we stand, however ineffectually.
This is undeniably depressing. It's also probably true.
I'm beginning to think there's not actually a single person in America who's been harmed by Obamacare. I know that seems unlikely, but take a look at the latest AFP ad pounding Obamacare. It features Julie Boonstra, whose insurance was canceled and replaced with a new policy after Obamacare took effect. Boonstra was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago and has been getting treatment ever since. But now, she says, her treatment is unaffordable. "This is serious," she says. "It's not a game."
But when Glenn Kessler checked into Boonstra's story, here's what he found. First, Boonstra had some initial problems with the Obamacare site. No surprise there. But then she found a plan. It allowed her to keep her doctor. She's still being treated. Her old plan cost $13,200 per year plus "low" out-of-pocket expenses. Her new plan costs a maximum of $13,202 per year. Here's what she told the Detroit News about her old plan:
It was extremely expensive and there are things as far as oral chemotherapies that need to be done to reduce the cost. ... But I was covered and I made having a great health plan a priority for me and that was taken away from me.
Let's recap: Boonstra kept her doctor. Her new plan is, on net, less expensive than her old plan. And presumably she's no longer required to compromise on the type of chemotherapy she receives. In other words, it appears to be superior on virtually every metric.
Boonstra herself is naturally unavailable for comment, and the best an unctuous AFP spokesperson could do to defend this ad is to point out that Boonstra's costs are a little more variable than in the past. Instead of paying a flat $1,100 per month plus low out-of-pocket costs, she sometimes pays more in a single month until she hits her annual out-of-pocket max. That's it.
This ad implies that Boonstra flatly can't afford coverage anymore. It implies that she could no longer see her old doctor. It implies that Obamacare is killing her. None of this is true. Boonstra's care is better and cheaper than it was before. The only downside is that her payments are slightly more erratic than in the past.
So here's my question: if this is the best AFP can do, does that mean that no one is truly being harmed by Obamacare? Hell, I'm a diehard defender of Obamacare, and even I concede that there ought to be at least hundreds of thousands of people who are truly worse off than they were with their old plans. But if that's the case, why is it that every single hard luck story like this falls apart under the barest scrutiny? Why can't AFP find someone whose premiums really have doubled and who really did lose her doctor and who really is having a hard time getting the care she used to get?
If this is happening to a lot of people, finding a dozen or so of them shouldn't be hard. But apparently it is. So maybe it's not actually happening to very many people at all?
You've seen all those Election Day maps that show gigantic swaths of red, suggesting that the vast majority of real America votes conservative. Well, for your entertainment, here's the flip side. David Atkins passes along the map below, which shows economic activity in the United States. The 25 or so largest urban centers in America account for half of all economic activity. Not bad for a bunch of pinko elitists, is it?
He's back. On Wednesday, less than three years after being released from federal prison, Louisiana Democrat Edwin Edwards told Bloomberg's Al Hunt he intends to run for the House seat being vacated by Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is running for Senate. That roar you heard was the sound of political reporters packing their suitcases for extended stays in Baton Rouge. Other than the corruption charges that put him in the slammer, Edwards' four terms in the governor's mansion were defined by dramatic populist politics and brash public statements that drew constant comparisons to former Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long.
Prison hasn't seemed to change Edwards. Here are some of his best (or worst) hits:
On his 1983 opponent, then Republican Gov. David Treen: "He's so slow, it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes."
On whether he fears his phone was being tapped by law enforcement: "No—except by jealous husbands."
On his electoral prospects against Treen: "The only way I can lose this election is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
On similarities between he and his opponent, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke: "We're both wizards in the sheets."
On his fate: "The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, and here comes my body."
On his womanizing, 1991: "Father Time has taken care of all that poppycock."
On his sex drive, 2012: "I don't need Viagra…Viagra needs me. Doesn't the Times-Picayune know they use my blood to make that stuff?"
On his new wife, Trina, who is 51 years his junior: "I learned something good to use Republicans for: sleep with them."
On whether it is fair to call him a womanizer: "I ride horses when I go to my ranch. That doesn't make me a cowboy."
On Trina (again): "I'm only as old as the woman I feel."
On the role of women in his administration: "The motto from here on out is up with skirts and down with pants."
On a claim he once slept with six women in one night: "No, it wasn't that way. [The author] was gone when the last one came in."
On his future—in 1991: "I don't have any skeletons in my closet. They're all out front. My closets have been raided so many times that there's nothing new, different, bad, or worse that can be said about me."
If Edwards does run, voters may be faced with a choice between Edwards, the convicted felon with a long, proud history of womanizing, and Tony Perkins, president of the social-conservative Family Research Council. Edwards hasn't formally filed paperwork yet, though. He told Bloomberg he wants to set up a super-PAC first.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc forecast a lower full-year profit than analysts expect, as fewer food stamps, higher taxes and tighter credit erode its sales, news that sent its shares down 1 percent in premarket trading on Thursday.
....A major factor in Wal-Mart's U.S. performance was a "low-single-digit decline" in sales of groceries at stores open at least a year, which generate about half of its sales....Wal-Mart's grocery sales have suffered from fewer food-stamp benefits resulting from U.S. federal budget cuts in November. One in five of its shoppers relies on food stamps, according to Cowen analyst Tal Lev.
I imagine that Walmart is now suffering from the failure to extend unemployment benefits too. And from the slowdown in economic activity and job losses caused by the sequester. And from our failure to increase the minimum wage.
But then again, lots of people are suffering from all that. Walmart is just a very large canary in the coal mine.
Soldiers with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force provide security for the landing team during amphibious insertion training from the Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Pacific during Exercise Iron Fist 2014 aboard Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., Jan. 29, 2014. Iron Fist is an amphibious exercise that brings together Marines and sailors from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, other I Marine Expeditionary Force units, and soldiers from the JGSDF, to promote military interoperability and hone individual and small-unit skills through challenging, complex and realistic training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Emmanuel Ramos/Released)