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Can Anyone Win the 2016 Republican Nomination?

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 9:41 AM PDT

Ben Smith pours cold water on the idea of Jeb Bush running for president:

The notion that Jeb Bush is going to be the Republican presidential nominee is a fantasy nourished by the people who used to run the Republican Party. Bush has been out of a game that changed radically during the 12 years(!) since he last ran for office. He missed the transformation of his brother from Republican savior to squish; the rise of the tea party; the molding of his peer Mitt Romney into a movement conservative; and the ascendancy of a new generation of politicians — Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, among them — who have been fully shaped by and trained in that new dynamic. Those men occasionally, carefully, respectfully break with the movement. Scorning today’s Republican Party is, by contrast, the core of Jeb’s political identity.

There's more, and Smith makes a good case without even bothering to mention Bush fatigue.

But I have to say that I'm mystified right now. In 2012, from the very start, I thought Mitt Romney would win the nomination. Basically, the whole contest boiled down to Mitt and the Seven Dwarves, and eventually I figured Mitt would stomp each dwarf and then, battered and bruised, win the nomination.

But this time around, it's just dwarves. Like Smith, I have a hard time seeing Jeb Bush making a serious run. Chris Christie still seems terminally damaged by Bridgegate, though I suppose that's still up in the air depending on what future investigations reveal. Beyond that, I guess Scott Walker is still a possibility—though, in the immortal words of Ann Widdecombe, it's always seemed as if there's a bit of the night about him. And Paul Ryan, of course, though it sure doesn't seem like he's seriously interested in running.

Beyond that, it's just the usual clown show of nutballs and C-list wannabes. You can make a great case for why none of them can possibly win. And yet, someone has to win. It's a mystery.

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Residents Displaced by Massive Sinkhole Reach $48 Million Settlement With Mining Company

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 9:22 AM PDT
The 30-acre Bayou Corne sinkhole.

Twenty months after a 30-acre sinkhole opened up in the swamp behind their community, Bayou Corne, Louisiana, residents reached a $48 million settlement with the salt-mining company Texas Brine. Geologists say the company's collapsed storage caverns likely triggered the environmental catastrophe and the series of small earthquakes that accompanied it. The class-action lawsuit, filed by the 90 homeowners who hadn't taken buyout offers from the company, was scheduled to go to trial next week. Residents of the community of 300 have been under a mandatory evacuation order since August of 2012 over fears that explosive-level gases might collect under their homes—although some residents have installed air monitors in an effort to wait it out.

Per the Baton Rouge Advocate:

"We firmly believe the $48 million is a really good settlement number," said Larry Centola, one of the attorney’s representing the owners and residents of about 90 homes and camps in the Bayou Corne area.

...

The settlement comes a few weeks after Texas Brine closed on the last of the 66 direct, out-of-court property buyouts and appears to provide a path toward conclusion for another wave of Bayou Corne residents displaced by the sinkhole disaster now more than 20 months old.

As I reported in a story for the magazine last year, the sinkhole has confounded geologists and state regulators, who previously believed that it was impossible for an underground salt cavern like the one underneath Bayou Corne—and used for natural gas storage by energy companies all over the Gulf Coast—to collapse from the side. But that's what happened. In the meantime, residents have been left to wonder if their community will meet the same fate as the town next door, Grand Bayou, which was evacuated and reduced to empty slabs after a natural gas leak a decade earlier.

Guess What? Greece Is Finally Starting to Recover

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 9:00 AM PDT

Apropos of nothing in particular, I want to highlight this column from Hugo Dixon that I found at Counterparties yesterday:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

I don't have anything to say about this, but once a narrative takes hold we sometimes don't realize it when things change. If you had asked me last week how Greece was doing, I would have answered, "Oh, they're still screwed." But apparently they're doing better. Not out of the woods yet, but doing better. Update your priors.

POSTSCRIPT: If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

Here's Some Stunning and Unexpected Good News About Obamacare

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 8:27 AM PDT

Today brings yet another take on Obamacare from Rand's latest survey of the health insurance market. Rand's sample size is fairly small, so there are large error bars associated with their numbers, but they also break them down in interesting ways. The number we've been tracking most closely in the other surveys on insurance is the number of uninsured who got coverage via Medicaid or the exchanges, which Rand displays in the top row of this table:

About 5 million previously uninsured people got coverage via Medicaid and the exchanges. This is slightly lower than other estimates, but only slightly. When you account for the March surge and the sub-26ers on their parents policies, you're probably back up to about 8 million. We'll have a better idea about this next month, but so far this is roughly consistent with other surveys we've seen.

But there's one stunning number in the Rand survey that we haven't seen before: the dramatic surge in people who have employer insurance (ESI). According to Rand, 8.2 million new people—7.2 million of them previously uninsured—have gotten employer insurance since mid-2013. Adrianna McIntyre is agog:

I can’t overstate how stunning this finding is if it’s true; CBO expected that ESI gains and losses would pretty much break even in 2014 and that employer coverage would decline modestly in future years.

If it’s correct, it was probably motivated multiple factors—I hate the word “synergy” on principle, but it comes to mind. The economy has been improving, so some of the previously unemployed have secured jobs with benefits. But CBO built in expectations about economic recovery, so I don’t think it’s quite right to try pinning all (or even most?) of the 8.2 million on that. The individual mandate, while weak in its first year, might be a stronger stick than we expected, nudging people to take their health benefits where they’d previously been opting out. Employers could be helping this move this trend along; the University of Michigan, for example, eliminated “opt out dollars” in 2014 (cash compensation for employees who declined coverage).

If this finding is confirmed, it's a genuine shocker. Although CBO projected that ESI would stay steady, there's been a lot of chatter about the likelihood of employers dropping coverage thanks to Obamacare. But that sure doesn't seem to have happened. So in addition to the usual sources of coverage—Medicaid, exchanges, sub-26ers—it looks like Obamacare has yet another big success story to tell, one that was almost completely unexpected.

For now, this should all be considered tentative. We'll have firmer numbers in April and May, once the March surge is fully accounted for and we know how many people have paid for coverage. But for now, it looks as if Obamacare is not merely hitting its target, but in a broadly unforeseen way, it's wildly exceeding it. This is terrific news.

GOP Chairman: Let's Get Rid of ALL Donation Limits

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 7:54 AM PDT

Last week, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, hailed the Supreme Court's recent decision in McCutcheon vs. FEC, which eliminated the cap on the number of contributions a donor can make to candidates, parties, and political action committees. Of course he would: The cash-starved parties now stand to rake in bag-loads more cash than they did before the decision.

But Priebus wants to go further. On Hugh Hewitt's radio show Tuesday, Priebus called for eliminating all limits on campaign contributions. All of 'em. The $2,600 limit on candidate donations, the $5,000 limit on PAC donations, the $32,400 limit on party committee donations, and so on. "I don't think we should have caps at all," he said.

Priebus says he wants the RNC to get behind any effort to demolish those limits, just as it joined Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon in his recent legal fight. "Absolutely, I would" look to get the RNC involved in future deregulation lawsuits, Priebus said. "And I would look to cases that allow us to raise soft money, and I would look to cases that allow us to raise money for the conventions, and—but disclose it all. That's kind of where I'm at personally."

If Priebus gets his way—and don't forget, he already has one major ally; Justice Clarence Thomas, in his separate opinion in McCutcheon, called for gutting all donation limits—we're looking at a pure free-for-all when it comes to money in politics. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave nearly $93 million to outside groups during the 2012 campaign, or movie mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave and raised more than $30 million to reelect President Obama, wouldn't need outside groups like super-PACs. Hell, they wouldn't need political parties. They could donate $1 million, or $10 million, or $100 million directly to their candidate of choice.

Priebus might even go further. In the wake of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich's ouster over his $1,000 donation to an anti-marriage equality ballot proposal, the RNC chairman suggested he was losing interest in disclosure laws, too. "Even [campaign finance laws] that I want to agree with are getting to be very difficult," he told Hewitt.

No limits, (maybe) no disclosure: If Priebus gets his way, this is the shadowy, cash-drenched future of American politics.

UMass' Derrick Gordon Is First Openly Gay Man In Major College Basketball

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 7:48 AM PDT

University of Massachusetts shooting guard Derrick Gordon came out as gay to the rest of his team last week, making him the first openly gay player in Division 1 men's college basketball, according to OutSports and ESPN.

"I was thinking about summer plans and just being around my teammates and how it was going to be," Gordon told ESPN. "I just thought, 'Why not now? Why not do it in the offseason when it's the perfect time to let my teammates know and everybody know my sexuality?"

Gordon averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds a game this season for the Minutemen, who were bounced from the first week of the NCAA Tournament in March. He said he had had private conversations with prominent gay sports figures before coming out, including Jason Collins, who became the first openly gay active player in the NBA when he was signed by the Brooklyn Nets this season.

Gordon posted this photo on Instagram after the announcement, expressing his relief:

This is the happiest I have ever been in my 22 Years of living...No more HIDING!!!...Just want to live life happy and play the sport that I love...Really would love to thank my family, friends, coaches, and teammates for supporting me....I would also like to thank my support team Wade Davis, Jason Collins, Brian Sims, Micah Porter, Anthony Nicodemo, Patrick Burke, Billy Bean, Gerald McCullough, Kirk Walker...You guys are AWESOME!!! Ready to get back in the gym with my teammates and get on the GRIND and get ready for next season!!!! #BETRUE #BEYOURSELF #HONEYBADGER

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 9, 2014

Wed Apr. 9, 2014 6:47 AM PDT

Marines with Fox Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Marine Regiment, 3rd Battalion, perform a simulated Vertical Assault Exercise during Ssang Yong 14, at Old Army Tank Battalion, Pohang, South Korea, April 2, 2014. Exercise Ssang Yong is conducted annually in the ROK to enhance interoperability between U.S. and ROK forces by performing a full spectrum of amphibious operations while showcasing sea-based power projection in the Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Sara A. Medina/Released)

How Food Marketers Made Butter the Enemy

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

James McWilliams—a historian who has made a name for himself in prestigious publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic for his contrarian defenses of the food industry—is back at it. In an item published last week in the excellent Pacific Standard, McWilliams uses the controversy over a recent study of saturated fat as a club with which to pummel food industry critics like the Times' Mark Bittman.

Here's what happened: A group including Harvard and Cambridge researchers analyzed 72 studies and concluded that there's no clear evidence that ditching saturated fat (the kind found mainly in butter, eggs, and meat) for the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind (found in fish and a variety of vegetable oils) delivers health benefits.

Bittman responded to the study's release with a Times item declaring that "butter is back." His real point was more nuanced than that, though. The study's conclusion "doesn't mean you [should] abandon fruit for beef and cheese," he wrote. Rather, he urged, "you [should] just abandon fake food for real food, and in that category of real food you can include good meat and dairy."

After a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat, the food industry began to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Not so fast, McWilliams countered. He pointed out, correctly, that the study turned out to have errors, which the authors had to correct. But even after the corrections, the study's lead author stood by the overall findings, Science reported. Another one of the authors told Science that the study's main problem was the way it was covered by media. "We are not saying the guidelines are wrong and people can eat as much saturated fat as they want," he told Science. "We are saying that there is no strong support for the guidelines and we need more good trials."

Of course, headline aside, Bittman didn't fall into that trap. He merely urged his readers to accept some fat when they're "looking for a few chunks of pork for a stew," and to use real butter in place of "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Indeed, Bittman's call for moderation in eating animal products is long-standing—he's the author of a book called Vegan Before Six and a longtime champion of the "Meatless Mondays" practice.

But McWilliams' real beef (so to speak) ultimately didn't involve the study itself, or the debate over fat's place in our diets. Rather, it centered on Bittman's critique of the food industry, which Bittman blamed for stoking the public's fat phobia, and manipulating it to its own ends. McWilliams chides Bittman for the "disingenuousness of using a study on fat and heart health as grounds for condemning processed food," and laments the "dubious manner in which processed foods are condemned."

But he misses an important point: You can't meaningfully debate the role of fat in our diets without looking hard at the way the food industry has manipulated the evolving scientific consensus around fat. On NPR last week, reporter Allison Aubrey showed how widespread fat phobia among the public gained traction from a 1977 decree by a US Senate committee that people should consume less saturated fat—which then got interpreted by the food industry as a license to promote sugar-laden, carbohydrate-rich products as "low fat" and thus healthy.

Simultaneously, as Bittman correctly noted, trans fats—cheap vegetable oils treated with hydrogen so that they remain solid at room temperature—emerged as the food industry's butter substitute of choice for decades, providing the main substance for margarine. Based on relentless food industry marketing, generations of people grew up thinking trans-fat-laden margarine was healthier than butter—even after science definitively showed that it was much, much worse (a sorry tale I laid out here). 

These fat-related marketing triumphs, quite profitable for the food industry, coincided with a surge in diet-related health troubles, including heightened obesity, diabetes, and metabolic-syndrome rates. Bittman is correct to discuss highly processed food in the context of the controversy over fat; and in trying to force it out of the conversation, McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.

Nobody Cares What You Think Unless You're Rich

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 5:36 PM PDT

In a simple model of democratic politics, there are three basic drivers of political decisionmaking:

  • The collective opinion of average citizens
  • The collective opinion of the affluent
  • The lobbying of interest groups

But which of these really matter? Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page studied 1,779 policy outcomes over two decades and came to a pretty simple conclusion: the collective opinion of average citizens doesn't matter a whit:

When the preferences of interest groups and the affluent are held constant, it just doesn't matter what average folks think about a policy proposal. When average citizens are opposed, there's a 30 percent chance of passage. When average citizens are wildly in favor, there's still only a 30 percent chance of passage. Conversely, the odds of passage go from zero when most of the affluent are opposed to more than 50 percent when most of the affluent are in favor.

Interest group lobbying, it turns out, also has an effect on policymaking—but business interest groups matter a lot more than mass interest groups. This comes via John Sides, who has much more detail about the study here. But none of it should come as a surprise. We've seen plenty of results like this before.

Dear Hollywood: Please Don't Make the New "Battlestar Galactica" Movie About Drones

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 4:07 PM PDT

Universal is planning a major film reboot of the sci-fi franchise Battlestar Galactica, according to a report in Variety. Jack Paglen (Transcendence) has reportedly signed on to write the screenplay, and original series creator Glen Larson is set to produce.

I have one modest request: Don't make it a movie about Obama's killer drones. Please. Don't do that. It's super zeitgeist-y, but please, just don't.

The rebooted Sci-Fi Channel series, which ran from 2003 to 2009, garnered much critical acclaim, in large part because it was smartly topical and political. That reboot focused on war between human civilization and the cybernetic Cylon race. The series worked as an allegory of the War on Terror, and incorporated themes of religious extremism, suicide bombing, and state-sanctioned torture. Many images called to mind the Iraq War, Nazi occupation, and the Vietnam War.

So it would only make sense if an upcoming film version of Battlestar Galactica were also deeply political. And with the Bush years in the rearview, Hollywood has frequently (almost relentlessly) turned to drone warfare as a go-to subject for big-budget political critique in the Obama era.

Here are a few examples of drones in big Hollywood fare released in the past year or so:

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is about "civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, [and] preemptive technology," according to its directors.

2. RoboCop (2014), which features autonomous killer robots called "drones" that are prominently used in an American invasion and occupation of Iran ("Operation Freedom Tehran," it's called). OmniCorp, which designs and manufactures these military robots, wants to put this technology to use in law enforcement in the United States. Thus kicks off a national debate on civil liberties and so forth.

3. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in which the democratic President of the United States is a foreign-born imposter who uses killer drones on American citizens overseas, and desires a world rid of nuclear weapons. (REMIND YOU OF ANYONE???)

4. Pacific Rim, which has drones in the form of gargantuan robots called Jaegers (the robots fight amphibious monsters called Kaiju).

5. Iron Man 3, which fits in snugly with the rest of the Iron Man franchise drone imagery.

6. Star Trek Into Darkness, which covers the ethical question of extrajudicial and targeted killing of terror suspects operating outside American borders.

(And it appears this drone warfare movie is in the works, too.)

This seems like it's on the verge of being played out. If Jack Paglen is looking for something fresher to weave into his script, maybe he can go with US special operations in Africa.