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Benjamin Button, Slumdog Lead Oscar Nods

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:06 PM EST

Before we do anything here, I'd just like to post this video from Funny or Die comparing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to another fine Oscar favorite:

Somebody should sue. Anyway, Forrest Gump 2: Old Dude Gets Young grabbed 11 whoops, 13 nominations for this year's Oscars, beating out Slumdog Millionaire which garnered 10. Other best picture competitors include Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader. The acting nominations were a little surprising: Kate Winslet, who won Golden Globes for Revolutionary Road and The Reader, was nominated only for the latter, and in the best actress category rather than supporting; Clint Eastwood was snubbed in acting categories, as was Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins. Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of the nominations was the poor performance of The Dark Knight, skulking away into its batcave with 8 nominations, all technical except for Heath Ledger's posthumous supporting actor nod.

After the jump: Best Animated Short Films!

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Civil Liberties Watch

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:02 PM EST

CIVIL LIBERTIES WATCH....Glenn Greenwald summarizes the initial 48 hours of the new administration:Barack Obama will have spent his first several days in office issuing a series of executive orders which, some quibbling and important caveats aside, meet or actually exceed even the most optimistic expectations of civil libertarians — everything from ordering the closing of Guantanamo to suspending military commissions to compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual to banning CIA "black sites" and, perhaps most encouragingly (in my view): severely restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents on the basis of secrecy, which has been the prime corrosive agent of the Bush era. As a result, establishment and right-wing figures who have been assuring everyone that Obama would scorn "the Left" (meaning: those who believe in Constitutional safeguards) and would continue most of Bush's "counter-Terrorism" policies are growing increasingly nervous about this flurry of unexpected activity.Well, look: if Glenn is happy, then I'm happy. He's a tough customer on this stuff. I hope Obama's followup is as good as his initial flurry of executive orders.

Obama White House "Explains" Exception to New Revolving Door Regulations

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:41 PM EST

CNN's Ed Henry just asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about DOD appointee William Lynn and his apparent violation of the newly unveiled revolving door regulations. Gibbs clearly didn't want to spend a lot of time at his very first press conference on the subject. He had this to say:

The ethics and lobbying regulations "exceed what any administration has done in the history of this country."
Together, they represent "the greatest ethical standard ever."
They are "the strongest ethical and transparency guidelines that any administration has ever lived under in the history of this country."

That's all excellent, and likely true. But it doesn't explain why it took only 24 hours for an exception to the guidelines to emerge. Pressed for an answer on why Lynn was getting a pass, Gibbs said, "any standard is not perfect" and that "a waiver process that allows people to serve their country is necessary." He called Lynn "uniquely qualified" and added that President Obama believes a "limited number of waivers" should be allowed.

It is unclear what the criteria are for receiving a waiver like Lynn's, and how frequently they will be granted. If they are granted too frequently, they will render the much-heralded regulations meaningless.

Update: Democratic Senator Carl Levin is starting to ask questions about Lynn. I wonder if he is going to make it through the confirmation process. That would be a real doozy. A bunch of senators would effectively derail a appointee because he fails to meet executive branch ethical standards they would never consider applying to the legislative.

Spending During a Recession

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:04 PM EST

SPENDING DURING A RECESSION....Does government spending during a recession produce more than one dollar of growth for every dollar spent? Conventional Keynesian economics says yes: in a virtuous circle, that dollar will flow through to workers, who will spend it on other things, which will in turn stimulate further growth and further spending. Most of the liberal economists who write about Barack Obama's stimulus plan think that the spending portion will have a short-term multiplier of about 1.4 or so.

But apparently Robert Barro disagrees:

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8....Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier.

I'm no economist, but this sounds mighty suspicious. The whole point of stimulus spending is to temporarily raise employment during a recession. But once unemployment has been reduced below 5% or thereabouts — I think it eventually got to around 2% during World War II — then that's all she wrote. All additional government spending can do is suck resources away from private consumption, which might very well produce a net multiplier less than one. The same is true, though in less extreme form, for other wartime spending that happens when unemployment is already low.

But during a recession, when monetary policy is wrung out and there are millions of workers who aren't being utilized in the private sector? That's a different story, no? And it's pretty fundamental to the whole theory. The fact that Barro doesn't even mention this, let alone address it, gives me little confidence in the rest of his op-ed.

Via Tyler Cowen.

If This Guy Is a Racist, He Isn't a Very Good One

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 1:29 PM EST

I'm ashamed of myself.

Much as I've critiqued it, I fell into the easy trap of wailing about anti-black racism while ignoring racism from blacks.

I must have been taking a mental break when Rev. Joseph Lowery made his oh-so famous rhyme during his inaugural benediction; I didn't 'hear' it when he said it. But I've definitely read it repeatedly in the days since Obama's inauguration and, while, I did pause over "and when white will embrace right" (that schtick is one of our oldest) I wasn't bothered for more than a few seconds, certainly not enough to blog about it. That was wrong, especially on such a day. I didn't bother to reflect on the mean-spirited divisiveness of that line until one of the best undiscovered writers I know (his emails are better than most fancy pants columnists in the MSM) sent out a heartbroken email. Maybe Lowery just wanted to get a laugh. I do a lot of public speaking. I get that. But, had I used the joke, I'd have added (after my laughs, of course) something like, "now, we can drop that last line"—in the spirit of reconciliation and healing, if nothing else.

John Schwade is a prison psychologist (meaning he daily administers to the largely black huddled masses warehoused in our beastly prisons) as well as spouse to a black woman and father to a lovely and brilliant biracial daughter. As he sat weeping Tuesday, watching the beautiful reality unfold before his eyes on TV and contemplating what it meant for his daughter, Lowery came on and—how else to say it—pissed in his face, just because he's white.

I should have called Lowery out, but I couldn't be bothered standing up for justice, however miniscule the scale. Though it wasn't really miniscule, was it, on such a day?

So, I asked John to let me run his email to remind myself that Dr. King was talking to everyone, not just white folks.

Here's his plea for justice:

A Poverty Program That Works

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 1:22 PM EST

A POVERTY PROGRAM THAT WORKS....Have you heard of the Harlem Children's Zone? I first read about it only a year or two ago, and it's a pretty fascinating anti-poverty project headed by a guy named Geoffrey Canada — one that might well be the template for Barack Obama's approach to inner-city poverty. In the current issue of MoJo, Paul Tough describes how it works:

Canada believes that many poor parents aren't doing enough to prepare their kids for school — not because they don't care, but because they simply don't know the importance of early childhood stimulation. So the Zone starts with Baby College, nine weeks of parenting classes that focus on discipline and brain development. It continues with language-intensive prekindergarten, which feeds into a rigorous K-12 charter school with an extended day and an extended year. That academic "conveyor belt," as Canada calls it, is supplemented by social programs: family counseling, a free health clinic, after-school tutoring, and a drop-in arts center for teenagers.

Canada's early childhood programs are in many ways a response to research showing that the vocabularies of poor children usually lag significantly behind those of middle-class children. At the Harlem Gems prekindergarten, I watched as the four-year-olds were bombarded with books, stories, and flash cards—including some in French. The parents were enlisted, too; one morning, I went with a few families on a field trip to a local supermarket organized by the Harlem Children's Zone. The point wasn't to learn about nutrition, but rather about language—how to fill an everyday shopping trip with the kind of nonstop chatter that has become second nature to most upper-middle-class parents, full of questions about numbers and colors and letters and names. That chatter, social scientists have shown, has a huge effect on vocabulary and reading ability. And as we walked through the aisles, those conversations were going on everywhere: Is the carrot bumpy or smooth? What color is that apple? How many should we buy?

So far, Canada's vision has yielded impressive results. Last year, the first conveyor-belt students reached the third grade and took their first statewide standardized tests. In reading, they scored above the New York City average, and in math they scored well above the state average.

Canada has gotten plenty of press already from the likes of Oprah and 60 Minutes, but our new president might be the biggest name convert of them all: Obama has proposed replicating the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country, an investment that he thinks will cost a "few billion" dollars. For comparison, this is less than 1% of what it will take to bail out the gazillionaires of Wall Street. Read the whole piece for more.

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Are We Broke Yet?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:55 PM EST

ARE WE BROKE YET?....Yesterday, Nouriel Roubini estimated that U.S. banking losses related to the financial meltdown will eventually come to about $1.8 trillion. Of this $1.1 trillion comes from loan writedowns and $700 billion comes from losses on securities. Since current total bank capitalization also amounts to about $1.8 trillion, this "leaves the U.S. banking system borderline insolvent if our loss estimates materialize."

Oddly enough, I almost find this comforting. First, since this is Roubini talking, this is probably a worst-case scenario. At least we're only borderline insolvent! Second, U.S. banks are still operationally profitable, which means that by the time all these losses are recognized the system will probably once again have a net capital position of half a trillion dollars or more. Third.....

Well, there is no third — a banking system can't survive on only a few hundred billion dollars in capitalization. This is pretty sucky news, and obviously it's suckier for some banks than for other. If Roubini is right it means the mother of all deleveragings still has a long ways to go, and if the Fed and the Treasury agree with his estimates, Citigroup and Bank of America might not have long to live.

Coat Checker's Delight

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:20 PM EST

Oh, how I was hoping this would happen!

TNR.com has re-run an inaugural classic: My old DC pal Jon Chait's hilarious piece on coat-checking at one of the Clinton Inaugural Balls. He ended up in a near-riot, manhandled by the police.

Public Cool on Warming

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:16 PM EST

PUBLIC COOL ON WARMING....Via Andrew Revkin, the latest Pew poll on priorities contains grim news for those of us who think we're rapidly destroying out planet: the public couldn't care less. Global warming, once again, ranks as the lowest priority from a list of 20, and the more general category of "protecting the environment" fell 15 percentage points from last year.

And as if that's not bad enough, Revkin also points to a new Rasmussen poll, which finds that 44% of U.S. voters don't believe humans are the cause of global warming, compared to only 41% who do. That's even worse than last year's results.

It's not surprising that public concern with the economy has risen recently, but over the past two years, as scientists and politicians have both been running around with their hair on fire, the public at large has become less concerned with global warming. Two years ago 38% thought it was an important domestic priority; today only 30% think so.

More later on the implications. But we really have some PR work to do here. Whatever it is we're doing now, it isn't working.

Army: Be All You Can Fudge

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:11 PM EST

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A few days ago, the New York Times reported that, thanks to the worsening economy, military recruiters are having better luck luring new recruits with promises of benefits, bonuses, and job training. According to the Times, the Army exceeded its recruitment goals in October, November, and December of last year.

But before we declare the Army's recruiting crisis over, it's worth taking a closer look at the numbers. A study released today by the National Priorities Project (NPP) finds that the Department of Defense is indeed meeting its recruitment requirements, but only by quietly lowering both its recruitment goals and the requirements for joining the military.

The Army, caught in two intractable wars, has had difficulty filling its ranks in recent years, placing added stress on those already in uniform. The Pentagon plans to expand the Army by 65,000 over the next several years to alleviate the strain. In doing so, however, it's been forced to compromise on standards, which according to the NPP, will have adverse affects down the road as the overall quality of the US military declines.

The Pentagon judges a "high quality" recruit based on a combination of educational achievement and score on the military's mandatory Armed Forces Qualification Exam (AFQT). Both have been manipulated, claims the NPP, to show improvement where little or none has been made. Take education levels. Before the war in Iraq, new recruits typically had at least a high school diploma. This is no longer the case, and the percentage of those with high school educations has fallen four years in a row. The Pentagon claimed far more high school-educated recruits last October than it actually had, thanks to a gentle twisting of definition; the Army's numbers included all new recruiting "contracts." But as NPP points out, contracts often fall through, and a far better measure is the number of "accessions," or those who actually enlist.