See U2's Crazy 360° Stage Design

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 2:41 PM EDT
U2 may have fizzled a bit, ratings-wise, on their recent 5-night Letterman residency, and maybe they actually brought Good Morning America's ratings down when they did a live performance for the show last Friday, and perhaps their new album, No Line on the Horizon, has sold about 42% fewer copies than 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb did in its first week. But that isn't stopping the Irish combo from creating a completely insane, War of the Worlds-style contraption to support their upcoming tour. The band's stadium performances will be "in the round," with a custom-made four-legged structure holding up the speakers, lighting and a large cylindrical screen, supposedly offering "an unobstructed view" to audiences. Except for the giant alien monster legs, which are also helpful for sucking up unsuspecting concert-goers and grinding them into sweet, sweet fan-pulp, to power our takeover of your puny planet. Bwah hah haa! You can check out a virtual tour of the thing over here. After the jump, "in the round" concerts: infuriating or just annoying?

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Congress Investigating Whether Merrill Lynch Lied on Bonuses

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 2:10 PM EDT

Earlier today, I noted that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who is investigating the bonuses that were given in late 2008 to executives at the massively money-losing Merrill Lynch, seems to have caught the financial services company in a lie. Now Merrill Lynch (which was bought by Bank of America last year with taxpayer help) is in even more trouble. The allegedly misleading letter Merrill Lynch sent in November of last year was sent to Congress, and Congress definitely doesn't like being deceived. Ed Towns (D-NY), the new chair of the House oversight committee, announced today that he is investigating whether Merrill Lynch execs lied to Congress. "[Cuomo's] filings raise the disturbing possibility that Merrill Lynch executives may have obstructed this Committee’s investigation into executive compensation practices and the awarding of bonuses at the company," Towns writes. "We will not hesitate to exercise every means at our disposal to protect the integrity of the Congressional investigation process and to bring real transparency to the use of TARP funds."

Vetting Hell

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 2:09 PM EDT
We have yet another casualty in the vetting wars:

Democratic sources say that H. Rodgin Cohen, a partner in the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, and the leading candidate for Deputy Treasury Secretary, has withdrawn from consideration.

....Democratic sources said that an issue arose in the final stages of the vetting process.

Cohen had risen to the top after the withdrawal last week of expected deputy treasury secretary pick Annette Nazareth. As one source put it, "it's back to the drawing board."

Without knowing what the "issue" was, I guess there's no way to comment on this.  But if it didn't come up until the final stages of the vetting process, I wouldn't be surprised if it's substantively minor but politically dangerous, the kind of thing that grandstanding senators will turn into a cause célèbres even though they know it's fundamentally trivial.  And when they're done, they'll go back to asking why Obama isn't taking the financial crisis more seriously.

Bah.  Get the Senate out of this whole process.  Let 'em confirm cabinet heads and leave it at that.  Do they really need to pretend to care about every deputy and assistant deputy too?

Bottle Wars

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 1:52 PM EDT
Hanna Rosin — currently nursing her third baby — says she accidentally picked up a magazine one day and discovered that breast feeding isn't quite the miracle cure everyone thinks it is these days.  In fact, the studies on its benefits are mostly pretty indeterminate:

Extended breast-feeding did reduce the risk of a gastrointestinal infection by 40 real life, it adds up to about four out of 100 babies having one less incident of diarrhea or vomiting.

....What does all the evidence add up to? We have clear indications that breast-feeding helps prevent an extra incident of gastrointestinal illness in some kids—an unpleasant few days of diarrhea or vomiting, but rarely life-threatening in developed countries. We have murky correlations with a whole bunch of long-term conditions. The evidence on IQs is intriguing but not all that compelling, and at best suggests a small advantage, perhaps five points; an individual kid’s IQ score can vary that much from test to test or day to day.

....So overall, yes, breast is probably best. But not so much better that formula deserves the label of “public health menace,” alongside smoking. Given what we know so far, it seems reasonable to put breast-feeding’s health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things—modesty, independence, career, sanity—on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision. But in this risk-averse age of parenting, that’s not how it’s done.

It's an interesting read.  Her takeaway is that breastfeeding is probably a good thing, but being manic about doing it exclusively isn't really justified.  Letting Dad warm up a bottle of formula in 3 in the morning isn't likely to do any harm, and the extra sleep might make you a better mother in the long run.

SarahPAC Missed the Memo

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 1:23 PM EDT

Sarah Palin's PAC, SarahPAC, is raising money using the (completely freaking crazy) Human Events mailing list. Opening paragraph:

As Washington, D.C. partisans continue to fight and bicker over "politics as usual," Governor Sarah Palin is working every day to reform government in Alaska and fight for the conservative values we all cherish.

Whoops -- so much for reform!

Frozen Pork

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 1:07 PM EDT
Jonathan Stein and David Corn have perused the recently passed omnibus spending bill in search of the dreaded earmark, and guess what?  Alaska got a lot of them!  So what does that firebreathing scourge of earmarks, Sarah Palin, have to say about that?

Asked by Mother Jones about the Alaska earmarks, Bill McAllister, Palin's communications director, pointed to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) as responsible for these provisions. But in an email, he noted that a "few of [the Alaska earmarks] were requested directly" by Palin. But how many? And which ones? McAllister declined to say.

Earmark opposition is so 2008, darlings.  How long do you think it will be before Palin flip-flops yet again and decides she supports the Bridge to Nowhere after all?

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Why Can't We Get Some Interim Treasury Staff?

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

I agree with this point from Times columnist Tom Friedman:

I read that we’re actually holding up dozens of key appointments at the Treasury Department because we are worried whether someone paid Social Security taxes on a nanny hired 20 years ago at $5 an hour. That’s insane. It’s as if our financial house is burning down but we won’t let the Fire Department open the hydrant until it assures us that there isn’t too much chlorine in the water.

But I also get this counterpoint from the Economist's Democracy in America blog:

You can hear the Republican spin if someone in the White House argued this. "Oh, sure. That's convenient. Waive the rules now, after eight years of piling on George Bush."

But do we really have only two options: unduly delay the staffing of the Treasury, or appointing people with ethical transgressions in their past lives? Why can't we appoint interim staff to the Treasury that undergo only a light vetting? They could serve while the full vetting process is going on. I understand there would be hiccups when the interim staff has to transfer their knowledge/files/etc. to the full-time staff, but is that worse that have no staff at all during this critical juncture?

Chart of the Day - 3.12.2009

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 12:33 PM EDT
Should healthcare reform include a public option?  That is, even if most people continue to get their healthcare via private insurers, should they have the option of signing up with a public plan if they want to?

The argument in favor is fairly simple: it keeps private insurers honest.  If the free market really does produce efficiencies and lower costs, then private plans ought to be able to provide medical services for less than the bloated government bureaucracy that runs Medicare.  If it turns out they can't, then they'll go out of business.

The argument against, such as it is, is that a public option will....what?  Force doctors to accept lower payment by fiat, I guess.  Or compete unfairly in some way.  I'm not sure.  My own guess is that a public option would be a boon for private insurers.  They really don't want to treat the sickest, costliest patients, after all, and even if they're required to insure all comers they'll still do everything they can to avoid taking them on.  That's a whole lot easier if turning the hardest cases away merely means they sign up for Medicare rather than being left to die in the street.

Anyway, it turns out the American public agrees.  In a recent survey, 71% said they favored "access to affordable, quality health care for all Americans even if it means a major role for the federal government."  This held up even under a barrage of hostile questions.  Ezra Klein summarizes:

The poll was conducted by Lake Research Partners and it tests reactions to the public insurance option seven ways to Sunday. It asks whether the public insurance option "will have an unfair competitive advantage over private insurance because the government will set rules that favor the public plan" and suggests that "a new public health insurance plan will reimburse doctors and hospitals at much lower rates, causing many doctors and hospitals to shift higher costs onto people who buy private health insurance." It dangles that "a public health insurance plan will be another big, government bureaucracy that will increase costs to taxpayers" and warns that it might "force people into lower quality care including long waiting times and rationing of care."

It doesn't matter. In case after case after case, the public insurance option retains majority support.

The bad guys haven't started up their PR blitz yet, of course, so this could all change.  But it's an encouraging sign.

Does Dinner Matter?

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 11:58 AM EDT
Matt Yglesias is unhappy with Matt Bai's dismissive attitude toward political scientists.  Bai says sniffily, "My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond."  Matt responds:

The events of the day play out against a larger structural backdrop. And it’s just not possible to try to understand them a-theoretically. What journalists unschooled in political science tend to do is to substitute prejudice for understanding. So you notice that in Maryland and Virginia there are a lot of well-to-do Democrats and start writing stories which presuppose that poor people are generally Republicans and rich people are generally Democrats. An alternative approach would be to read Andrew Gelman’s book and you’d see that this is an idiosyncratic feature of a small portion of the country and that, overall, high income is a strong predictor of Republican voting.

To some extent, this is just the usual battle between the hacks and the wonks, between researchers and reporters, or (from my past life) between sales and marketing.  The obvious and boring answer to all this is that both are important: you need to talk to real people and you need to understand the larger trends and forces that shape their attitudes.  But willy nilly, most of us tilt toward one side or the other.

In the case of journalists, one reason they tilt toward the a-theoretical side is that they're in the business of generating human interest.  Not only is that what their readers want to read (including me, even though I'm firmly on wonk/researcher/marketing side of things), but it's the only way to produce daily stories that are meaningful.

Here's an example that I've struggled with a bit: Why did Barack Obama win last year's election?  My answer — and I genuinely think this is right — is that he won because two fundamentals were overwhelmingly in his favor: (a) a Republican had been in the White House for eight years and (b) the economy was failing.  Put those two factors together and Obama was a shoo-in to win by about 6-8 points in the popular vote.  And guess what?  He won the popular vote by a little more than 6 points.

But there's a corollary here that's hard to ignore.  If you believe this, then it means that Sarah Palin didn't matter.  Jeremiah Wright didn't matter.  McCain's meltdown over the economy didn't matter.  Obama's phenomenal fundraising and state organization didn't matter.  None of that stuff mattered.  McCain just had too big a hurdle to clear.  As long as Obama avoided some kind of epic gaffe, he was going to win.  All the ink spilled on strategy and tactics and debates and campaign finance and dinners with Iowans was just so much hooey.  None of it mattered.

But that's a tough nut to swallow, isn't it?  I'm pretty deeply into this stuff, and even I can't really swallow it.  What's more, it makes for really lousy journalism.  So instead we get the stories.  They may or may not represent reality, but at least they're interesting.

Lessig's Donor Strike Withholds $1 Million from Congress

| Thu Mar. 12, 2009 11:23 AM EDT

In January, Lawrence Lessig and his reform-minded organization, Change Congress, launched a donor strike aimed at members of Congress who do not support a bill designed to greatly reduce the influence of lobbyist and special-interest money in politics.

Thursday, Lessig and fellow Change Congress founder Joe Trippi announced donors have withheld $1 million total, including $365,000 held back from Senators Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Lessig has long railed against the money-powered corruption machine in Congress, and Change Congress's strike was engineered in part to draw attention to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin's Fair Elections Now Act.

Now, you could debate the merits of a donor strike (won't it cause members of Congress to rely more on big-time dollars from special interest groups?), but Durbin's bill, which Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) cosponsored, could transform how politicians finance their campaigns—and how they vote once they arrive in Washington. Basically, it creates an incentive for politicians to raise a large number of small-dollar donations. Once they hit a magic number of those donations, they are eligible for a much larger cash infusion, paid from a public fund. If they accept that chunk of money, they will not be allowed to take big-dollar donations from lobbyists or special interest groups. Instead, every small-dollar donation received after that would be matched by money from the central fund.