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Here's Two and a Half Cheers for No-Drama Obama

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 1:01 PM EDT

On Saturday I promised to both agree and disagree with Matt Yglesias, but I never quite got around to the agreeing part. So let's do that today. Yglesias was writing in response to a fairly typical complaint from Josh Green that President Obama is too aloof, too cerebral, and too technocratic to satisfy the public's "emotional needs" in a national leader. But Yglesias points out that Obama's firm, low-key disposition served him well when the rest of the world went into panic mode over the passage of Obamacare after Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2010:

There's no single optimal temperament for all times and all places. Obama, by temperament, is a cool cucumber. I am not. At times, Obama might have been better served by a more emotional approach and an itchier trigger finger. But Obama was right during the political crisis of January 2010.

He was also right back in October of 2008 when the American banking sector seemed to be collapsing....Obama's opponent, John McCain, was never one to underreact. Most observers greatly appreciated the younger senator's ability to keep things in perspective and his evident dedication to trying to learn the relevant facts....Similarly, two months earlier, McCain was proclaiming "we are all Georgians now" in response to Putin's incursion into South Ossetia. A systematic overreactor would have had his finger much more on the public pulse when Ebola first arrived in Dallas. But he also might have embroiled the country in a nuclear war with Russia.

....Journalists have systematic professional incentives to overreact....The hot temperament consequently tends to dominate in the ranks of the media....But more than a political pose, an aversion to purely symbolic action has genuinely served Obama well at critical moments....Obama's approach to the economy has been far from flawless, but it's not a coincidence that the USA has performed better since 2008 than Europe or the United Kingdom and weathered its financial crisis far better than Japan did in the 1990s.

The Deepwater Horizon crisis passed. The American Ebola crisis will also pass. HealthCare.gov got fixed. The Russian economy is reeling in the face of sanctions. Osama bin Laden is dead. The economy is growing. Obama hasn't always been a very effective pundit-in-chief (acute crisis moments aside, his inability to articulate public anger at Wall Street has been remarkable) but that's not actually his job. On the big stuff, he's been effective. And that's not a coincidence.

I always find it difficult to strike just the right tone on this. Unlike Yglesias, I am a fairly cool cucumber, and I'm frankly relieved to have a president whose temperament is roughly in sync with my own. At the same time, I'm well aware that I'm not typical, and that like it or not, the presidency is a bully pulpit that often demands a certain demonstrativeness in order to resonate with the public. Overtly emotional appeals worked well for Bill Clinton and overtly nationalistic ones worked well for George Bush. In Obama's case, however, it really is sometimes hard to tell if he's truly engaged with problems the way he should be. Occasional leaks from White House insiders that Obama is "furious" about something or other doesn't get the job done.

That said, Obama has good reason to be contemptuous of the 24/7 news cycle and the way it's affected politics. Obviously reporters aren't much interested in writing "Problem X continues to be steadily addressed" day after day. They want action! They want news! And these days, they don't even want it daily. They pretty much want it hourly.

But that's a crappy attitude toward problem solving. There have been times and places when Obama probably has been a little too disengaged, either in the planning process or in responding to crises. Healthcare.gov is an example of the former, and the sequester/debt limit/fiscal cliff battles may be examples of the latter. For the most part, though, his approach has been pretty sound. There was little the government could do about Deepwater Horizon, and high-profile interference probably would have been as counterproductive as the recent panic-stricken Ebola quarantine orders from the governors of New Jersey, New York, and Florida. Obama has instead been radiating calm and working behind the scenes to prevent Ebola from becoming just another partisan football. He's urging us to adopt evidence-based responses that don't undermine the longer-term fight against Ebola, and that's the right call.

America is a big place. The world is even bigger. We have big problems that don't get solved in a day. I don't want to pretend that Obama has an ideal management style, when he plainly doesn't. But given what he's dealing with, Obama's management style is pretty damn good. And you know what? The dirty little secret of management is that half the battle—maybe more!—is avoiding lots of stupid stuff that you have to clean up afterward.

Obama may not always give us the emotional sustenance we want, or mount a pretense of whirlwind action to satisfy the cable nets, but he gets things done. Anyone who can count on their fingers can pretty easily figure out, for example, that he's had a more successful presidency than either Clinton or Bush. Slow and steady doesn't win every race, but it wins a lot of them.

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GOP Senate Hopeful: "Less Than 2,000" Women Sued My Company For Pay Discrimination

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 12:18 PM EDT
GOP Senate candidate David Perdue and his wife at a recent campaign stop

David Perdue, the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia, has a lady problem—at least according to recent polls, which show Democrat Michelle Nunn ahead with women voters in this toss-up election.

In a Sunday night debate between Perdue and Nunn, the moderator suggested that ads about Perdue's time as the CEO of Dollar General, a discount chain, had damaged the GOPer's campaign. Shortly after Perdue stepped down as Dollar General's CEO, hundreds of female managers sued the company for pay discrimination that allegedly took place during Perdue's tenure. Nunn's campaign and EMILY's List have both aired millions of dollars' worth of negative ads describing the class-action lawsuit. The moderator urged Perdue: "Talk to those women in particular."

Here's how Perdue responded: "If you look at Dollar General as an example, there was no wrongdoing there," he said. "That lawsuit, or that claim, or that complaint was settled five years after I had left…And it was less than 2,000 people. We had upwards of 70,000 employees in that company."

An annual report Dollar General submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission puts the actual number of female managers in that class action at 2,100. As Mother Jones reported in May, the women had been paid less than their male peers between the dates of November 30, 2004 and November 30, 2007—almost exactly the dates that Perdue was CEO (from April 2003 to summer 2007.) The class action began in late 2007, and Dollar General settled the lawsuit for $18.75 million without admitting to discrimination.

"Two thousand women, that actually seems like quite a lot to me," Nunn said at the debate.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 27, 2014

Mon Oct. 27, 2014 11:58 AM EDT

US Marines watch from the gunner's door of a Seahawk helicopter over the Atlantic ocean. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Todd F. Michalek)

Kobani Still Holding Out -- But Is That Good News?

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 11:20 AM EDT

Like Mark Thompson, I've been a bit out of circulation for the past couple of weeks—enough to pay only minimal attention to Iraq, anyway—and also like Thompson, I'm a little surprised to come back and discover that Kobani is still holding out against ISIS. This is largely thanks to the US bombing campaign, and Thompson isn't sure what to think of this success:

While that’s obviously good news in the short term for the city’s 200,000 largely-Kurdish residents, it’s tougher to handicap what it means for the long-term U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Earlier this month, U.S. military officers were speaking of ISIS’s “momentum,” and how its string of military successes over the past year meant that quickly halting its advance would likely prove difficult if not impossible. Yet, as far as Kobani is concerned, that seems to be what is taking place.

But that raises the stakes for the U.S. and its allies. Having smothered ISIS’s momentum, an eventual ISIS victory in the battle for Kobani would be a more devastating defeat for the U.S. military than an earlier collapse of the town.

There are concerns that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war.

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

The flip side of this is the obvious one: have patience. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.”

If we're really engaged in a years-long battle against ISIS, then a few months here or there doesn't matter much. And saving Kobani isn't just a moral good, but can also demonstrate to others that ISIS is not some magical, unstoppable force destined to overrun Iraq. It's just an ordinary group of guerrilla soldiers who can be defeated with determination and patience. Stay tuned.

This Halloween, John Oliver Explains How the Sugar Industry Is Killing Us with Lies

| Mon Oct. 27, 2014 9:53 AM EDT

This Halloween, Americans are gearing up to spend a whopping $2.2 billion in candy supplies, according to the latest Last Week Tonight. But how much sugar do we consume on the regular? That's where it gets a bit murky, thanks to the sugar industry's sweet little lies.

In light of Big Sugar's deception tactics, John Oliver breaks it down for us: We take in nearly 75 pounds of sugar annually or as he expertly describes, "Michael Cera's weight in sugar ever year."

Gross, but it's not exactly our fault, considering a disturbing amount of our food's sugar content is hidden from us.

"Regardless of whether sugar is terrible for you or the answer to all of life's problems, shouldn't you at least get to know when it's been added to your food?" John Oliver asked. After all, sugar is a leading contributor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Last night, Oliver presented a rather festive solution to all this in the form of circus peanuts, "the most disgusting of all the candies." Watch below:

 

 

 

 

Housekeeping Finale

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 10:09 PM EDT

I am home and the cats are becoming re-acquainted with their long-lost daddy. Monday should bring a return to normalcy. That is all.

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This "Sexy Ebola Nurse Costume" Is the Stupidest Halloween Thing Ever

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 3:57 PM EDT

In case you haven't heard, there's an epidemic raging in West Africa that's recently crossed yet another border and is bringing entire countries to the verge of collapse. There have been more than ten thousand cases since March. The fatality rate could be as high as 85 percent. Nurses in America and doctors in West Africa are among the people who have suffered because of this thing. 

But hey, who's to say we can't have a little fun on the side? 

With five days left until Halloween, "unique costume shop" Brands on Sale is selling a "sexy" Ebola nurse costume for $59.99. (Boots sold separately.) The getup comes complete with face shield, lab coat-looking "costume dress", face mask, and eye goggles. Oh, and gloves, too! (By the way, the Liberian government reported a shortage of 2.4 million boxes of gloves over the next six months.)

Brands on Sale

Just to be be clear, Ebola is bad, bad, bad, bad.

(h/t BuzzFeed for finding this one.)

Profiles in Mainstream Media Courage

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 3:05 PM EDT

Laura Poitras, the journalist who first worked with NSA leaker Edward Snowden and later wrote groundbreaking stories with Glenn Greenwald about the stunning growth and reach of the US surveillance state, describes her initial interaction with the mainstream media in an interview with Astra Taylor:

Q: Other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.

A: There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources....We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.

As they say, read the whole thing.

Social Networking Employs More People Than We Think

| Sun Oct. 26, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

This is a pretty amazing story from Wired reporter Adrian Chen about the army of workers who spend their days monitoring the raw feeds of social networking sites to get rid of "dick pics, thong shots, exotic objects inserted into bodies, hateful taunts, and requests for oral sex" before they show up on America's morning skim of Facebook and Twitter:

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair....Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video.

....So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor. Hemanshu Nigam, the former chief security officer of MySpace who now runs online safety consultancy SSP Blue, estimates that the number of content moderators scrubbing the world’s social media sites, mobile apps, and cloud storage services runs to “well over 100,000”—that is, about twice the total head count of Google and nearly 14 times that of Facebook.

Given that content moderators might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites, it’s worth pondering just what the long-term psychological toll of this work can be.

We often hear about how the new app economy is largely a jobless economy, but thanks to the general scumminess of human beings maybe that's less true than we think. Cleaning up the internet for grandma is a grueling, never-ending job that, for now anyway, can only be done by other, less scummy, human beings. Lots of them.

It's true that the "basic moderation" jobs are largely overseas and don't pay much, but second-tier moderators are mostly US-based and are paid fairly well. As you'd expect, though, most don't last long. Burnout comes pretty quickly when you spend all day exposed to a nonstop stream of torture videos, hate speech, YouTube beheadings, and the entire remaining panoply of general human degradation. That's what the rest of Chen's story is about. It's a pretty interesting read.

Quick Treatment Update - And Thanks

| Sat Oct. 25, 2014 9:09 PM EDT

I had my first round of chemo about six hours ago, and I had no reaction at all. No nausea, no vomiting, no nothing. I ate lunch an hour afterward. Obviously this may change as things progress, but so far I seem to be tolerating the treatment regimen well. That's good news. And my back continues to slowly get stronger and less painful.

The outpouring of prayers and good wishes has been genuinely heartening. Thank you to everyone for all the comments, tweets, and emails. They truly mean a lot to me. And to Nora and Jason from Chicago: Thanks for the flowers! They're lovely.

On a related note, several people have asked if I need any financial help. As it happens, MoJo provides excellent health coverage (mine is through Kaiser), so I'm well covered on that front. Beyond that, as many of you know, my previous career has left me in very good financial shape. So I'm one of the lucky ones: All I have to do is worry about following my treatment plan and getting better. I have no money worries, and plenty of family and friends (and cats!) rooting for me and ready to take care of me when I need help.

That's the latest. And here's the best news: Depending on how things go tonight, I may be able to go home tomorrow. Hooray!