Kevin Drum - 2013

Black Friday Is Now Just a Dark Shade of Gray

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 2:26 PM EST

This year's meme of the day—literally—is that Black Friday is just a bunch of meaningless hooey. To sample just a few: Neil Irwin tells us that Black Friday sales have no broad significance; David Lazarus says Black Friday crowds are losing out to the internet; Suzanne Kapner says Black Friday doorbusters are just an illusion; Lydia DePillis says Black Friday is a terrible and dangerous tradition; and the staff of the Christian Science Monitor this year debunks no fewer than 16 Black Friday myths.

Is it like this every year? Maybe. But I don't remember quite such relentless dyspepsia over Black Friday in years past. Plenty of horror, shock, and disgust, to be sure, but not mere shoulder-shrugging dismissal. Because of this, I'm officially declaring that the Black Friday bubble has peaked. If you own stock in Black Friday Inc., it's time to sell.

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Chicken vs. Turkey Is an Unfair Fight

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 5:58 PM EST

This year, Matt Yglesias's annual bout of turkey hate takes a quantitative approach:

Consider these striking facts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistical Service's latest report on poultry production (PDF).

It reveals that in the United States in 2012 we produced a staggering 49.5 billion pounds of chicken meat worth an aggregate of $24.8 billion.

By contrast, we raised a paltry 7.3 billion pounds of turkey worth just $5 billion.

If everybody likes turkey so much, then why aren't you buying any?....Here at Slate we think it's very important to be clear on what's a contrarian take and what's the conventional wisdom. And the conventional wisdom is that turkey is bad and you should eat chicken if you're interested in some not-very-flavorful poultry. People eat turkey on Thanksgiving because it's traditional, but people do not enjoy eating turkey.

Unfortunately, there's a confounding variable that Matt has failed to consider: as the illustration on the right demonstrates scientifically, turkeys are big. One reason that we don't buy turkeys routinely throughout the year is that your average household of 2.58 members doesn't want that much of anything. Most of us don't cook big standing rib roasts very often either, but that's not because we don't like beef. It's because they're too damn big for everyday consumption. Add to that the fact that roasting a turkey is a pain in the ass, and you just aren't going to have turkey very often.

Now, that said, it's hard to escape Matt's central contention that turkey isn't really all that tasty. Most of us eat it only alongside forkfuls of cranberry sauce or drenched in gravy, which pretty much gives the game away taste-wise, doesn't it?

Still, this raises yet another question. Of that 49.5 billion pounds of chicken, I'd guess that a sizeable fraction of it is consumed in the form of chicken nuggets of some variety. So why aren't there turkey nuggets instead? Once you batter it and toss it in a deep fryer, turkey would taste just fine.1 And that brings up a second reason that we eat more chicken than turkey—one that should be of special interest to a Moneybox columnist: it's cheaper. According to that Ag Department document above, chicken goes for 50 cents per live-weight pound while turkey sells for 73 cents.

In other words, we don't really need to get into inherently personal arguments about the relative tastiness of chicken vs. turkey. Chicken is both cheaper and far more convenient than turkey for your average consumer, and that's enough. It's no surprise that it's the world's poultry of choice.

1Wouldn't it? I'm no foodie, and anyway, I happen to like nibbling on turkey leftovers from the fridge with nothing more than a little salt as seasoning. But maybe there's something about turkey meat that makes it poorly suited to the indignities of nugget-dom. Anyone happen to know?

Quote of the Day: Green Goo Edition

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 2:08 PM EST

From Stephanie Mencimer, after whipping up one of the holiday offerings in The Romney Family Table:

My DC-bureau testers lost their nerve when presented with the green goo. Some claimed nut allergies (a likely story!). Fortunately, Caldwell, like me, hails from the Jell-O belt and was undeterred.

Fearless journalism indeed.

A Brief Whine About E-Books, Digital Publishing, and International Nonsense

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 1:47 PM EST

There's nothing much going on today, and I have something to whine about. So you're stuck with my whining today.

Or maybe, considering the subject, this is more like whinging. Anyway. Earlier this year, Charlie Stross published a a thoroughly revised version of his 6-part Merchant Princes series. It's now three books and began shipping in April. I want to read it.

But I can't, because it was only published in Great Britain. At the time, Stross explained that we Americans were SOL: "The Merchant Princes re-issue won't be sold in the USA until Tor US decide to publish it. This will not happen in 2013 (because their 2013 schedule is full)."

Hmmph. I could buy the books from England, of course, but (a) it's expensive, and (b) I don't want three more dead-tree books in my library. I want to read them on my tablet. But I can't do that either, because publishers these days are all hellbent on using digital technology to maintain more control over their products than they ever had in the physical world. I can buy the physical books and have them shipped to Irvine, but I can't buy the Kindle version and download it to my American tablet. For contractual reasons, Tor UK does not permit that, and the region coding embedded in the Kindle app enforces their desire. So I'm screwed. As Stross points out, this is something the rest of the world has had to deal with for a long time:

If you're based in the USA and want these books, well ... welcome to what it's like for those of us in the UK or rest of world who want new American titles! And (ahem) you might want to investigate the usual work-arounds. As these books are DRM-free, all you'll need to do is set up a sock-puppet AMZN account that is tied to an address in some other country and fed by a supply of amazon.co.uk gift coupons bought via ebay, or something like that. (Note that amazon.com gift coupons will get you precisely nowhere on amazon.co.uk, and vice versa.)

I dunno. I suppose I could do this. Maybe. If I set up an Amazon.co.uk account and try to buy a Kindle book, will it work? Or will it know that my tablet is located in the United States and make threatening noises at me? Do I need a separate Kindle app for my surreptitious overseas purchases? Or what? Has anyone done this? Are detailed instructions available on some handy website somewhere?

I know this is trivial. First world problems and all that. But I'd like to read these books, and the various contractual restrictions on e-books are maddening.

End of whine. Or whinge. Thanks for listening.

UPDATE: As several people have pointed out, DRM has nothing to do with this particular case because Tor books are DRM-free. It's mostly contractual restrictions that are at issue here. I've changed the headline to reflect this.

The Filibuster Is Dead, But Blue Slips Are Still Alive and Kicking

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 12:56 PM EST

Last week, when Harry Reid destroyed democracy as we know it by eliminating the Senate filibuster for judicial nominees, one of my first thoughts was, "But what about blue slips?" It's all very well to allow simple majorities to approve judges, but if Republican senators use the blue slip rule to keep them off the floor in the first place, then what good does it do?

As you may recall, the blue slip is a Senate tradition. If you're nominating a judge for, say, a New York court, the two New York senators get a say in things. If they return their blue slips, they approve of the judge. If they don't, the nomination grinds to a halt. Republicans have played games with the blue slip rule over the past couple of decades, requiring only one blue slip when a fellow Republican is president but two when a Democrat is president, but ever since the 2006 midterms Patrick Leahy has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he's a pretty straight shooter. Even though the current president is a fellow Democrat, Leahy consistently requires two blue slips for all nominees, which makes it easier for Republicans to block Obama's judges. All they need is for one senator to withhold a blue slip, and the nomination is dead.

Leahy was presumably hoping that setting an example of fair-mindedness would prompt Republicans to act fairly too, and in this he was obviously wrong. Nonetheless, he hasn't changed his tune on blue slips, and TPM's Sahil Kapur wonders whether this is likely to change in the wake of filibuster reform:

"I assume no one will abuse the blue slip process like some have abused the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees on the floor of the Senate," Leahy said. "As long as the blue slip process is not being abused by home state senators, then I will see no reason to change that tradition."

It remains to be seen whether Republicans will resort to withholding blue slips more frequently after the filibuster rule change. Some may be tempted to because it's now their most powerful weapon to thwart Obama from filling up the judiciary with his preferred nominees. If so, it'll put to the test Democrats' willingness to uphold the tradition.

Republican senators have been pretty free about using their blue slip privileges already, so I'm not sure just how much more abuse is left. Jeffrey Toobin provides a quick summary:

The list of federal judicial vacancies tells an extraordinary story. For example, there are seven vacancies on the federal district courts in Texas....Republicans don’t agree to any of Obama’s choices, and so the seats stay vacant, sometimes for years....The story is much the same throughout the parts of the South and the West where Republican senators preside. There are three vacancies in Kentucky, three more in Georgia, and two in Alabama. And it’s not true just for the district court; Leahy has honored blue slips for circuit-court judgeships, as well. There are two vacancies each on the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, which together cover most of the states in the old Confederacy.

....Fifty-one of Obama’s nominees are pending, and the vast majority of the remainder are either very recent or in Republican-controlled states....By employing the blue slip, Republican senators can stymie Obama’s nominees (or prevent them from even being nominated) without having to resort to the filibuster.

How much worse can this get? One reason for optimism is that because Democrats have now proven they can be pushed only so far, maybe Republican senators will pause a bit before upping the ante even more. We'll see.

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Only Republicans Believe Obamacare Is Doomed

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 11:35 AM EST

Greg Sargent points us this morning to the latest CNN poll on Obamacare, and it shows that despite all the rollout problems, attitudes toward the law haven't changed an awful lot:

There are some additional crosstabs at the link, and Sargent points out that they paint a cautiously positive picture:

The poll also finds 54 percent believe current problems facing the law will eventually be solved, versus 45 percent who don’t. Again, that latter sentiment is driven by Republicans: Independents think they will be solved by 50-48; moderates by 55-43. By contrast, Republicans overwhelmingly believe they won’t be solved by 72-27.

Crucially, young Americans — who are important to the law’s success – overwhelmingly believe the problems will be solved (71 percent). Part of the campaign by Republicans to persuade Americans that the law’s doom is inevitable is about dissuading people from enrolling, to turn that into a self fulfilling prophesy.

Republicans are convinced the law is already a failure. And why wouldn't they? The Fox News bubble has been telling them that for months. But the rest of the country is willing to give it a chance and thinks its problems will probably be solved. When they are, support will go up even higher.

You Own Your DNA, But Who Gets to Interpret It?

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 7:39 PM EST

Yesterday the FDA ordered 23andMe to immediately stop selling its DNA testing service until and unless it gets agency approval. This is the end game of a very long cycle: regulatory reviews of genetic testing have been going on, in one form or another, for more than 15 years, and along the way there have been repeated bipartisan calls for more rigorous rules to ensure that consumers get accurate and judicious information. In 2010, for example, the GAO conducted an undercover investigation of four genetic testing companies and concluded that "GAO’s fictitious consumers received test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use."

Nonetheless, the FDA's action yesterday produced a flurry of criticism, especially from the libertarian right. Alex Tabarrok is typical:

The FDA wants to judge not the analytic validity of the tests [...] but the clinical validity, whether particular identified alleles are causal for conditions or disease. The latter requirement is the death-knell for the products because of the expense and time it takes to prove specific genes are causal for diseases....Here is why I think the FDA’s actions are unconstitutional. Reading an individual’s code is safe and effective. Interpreting the code and communicating opinions about it may or may not be safe—just like all communication—but it falls squarely under the First Amendment.

I'm pretty sure this is nowhere near so cut and dried. The relevant distinction here is between medical information and medical advice: the former is protected speech while the latter isn't. And while your genome may be medical information, interpreting your genome and explaining whether it puts you at risk for different diseases is very close to medical advice. And not just general medical advice, of the kind that Dr. Oz purveys on television. It's specific, personal medical advice, of the kind that only licensed physicians are allowed to provide.

That's the argument, anyway. If 23andMe is going to perform a lab test and then send you a personal letter suggesting that you, personally, are or aren't at high risk for some disease, it's acting an awful lot like a doctor. But for better or worse, only doctors are allowed to act like doctors, and the FDA thinks that complex and sometimes ambiguous test results should be communicated to patients by licensed MDs who know what they mean.

It turns out there's more to this particular case, of course: the FDA's letter makes it pretty clear that they're fed up with 23andMe, which has apparently been almost arrogantly unresponsive to standard requests for documentation:

As part of our interactions with you, including more than 14 face-to-face and teleconference meetings, hundreds of email exchanges, and dozens of written communications, we provided you with specific feedback on study protocols and clinical and analytical validation requirements, discussed potential classifications and regulatory pathways (including reasonable submission timelines), provided statistical advice, and discussed potential risk mitigation strategies.

....However, even after these many interactions with 23andMe, we still do not have any assurance that the firm has analytically or clinically validated the PGS for its intended uses....Months after you submitted your 510(k)s and more than 5 years after you began marketing, you still had not completed some of the studies and had not even started other studies....FDA has not received any communication from 23andMe since May. Instead, we have become aware that you have initiated new marketing campaigns, including television commercials that, together with an increasing list of indications, show that you plan to expand the PGS’s uses and consumer base without obtaining marketing authorization from FDA.

Ouch. By happenstance, this brought to mind a Felix Salmon post from yesterday. It was about GoldieBlox, another high-flying Silicon Valley startup that apparently believes federal laws apply only to ordinary mortals—not to rebelliously innovative and disruptive companies that are going to change the very way we interact with the world. Salmon describes the "Silicon Valley way" like this: "First you make your own rules — and then, if anybody tries to slap you down, you don’t apologize, you fight."

This sure sounds an awful lot like 23andMe. I'm actually sort of agnostic about the issue of whether personal genome services should fall into the category of highly regulated diagnostic tests. The line between information and advice is genuinely gray here. But regardless of that, this isn't something that suddenly popped up out of nowhere. It's been on the FDA's radar for a long time, and 23andMe was well aware of the FDA's requirements. They sure look an awful lot like a Silicon Valley company that figured they could stall them forever and never pay a price.

Janet Yellen Is Now a Litmus Test for Right-Wing Sanity

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 3:22 PM EST

Steve Benen notes that the increasingly shrill and hyperbolic Heritage Foundation has decided to make opposition to Janet Yellen a "key vote." That is, they'll count it on their end-of-the-year scorecard that tells everyone just how conservative you are:

Thanks to the “nuclear option” there’s very little chance Yellen’s nomination will fail — Joe Manchin appears to be her only Democratic opponent — but it now seems likely that most Senate Republicans will oppose the most qualified Fed nominee since the institution was founded.

That's true, which means this has become sort of a litmus test for wingnuttery. There's simply no serious reason to oppose Yellen, who is outstandingly qualified to be Fed chair by virtually any measure. So opposition to Yellen is now a pretty simple proposition: you oppose her if you're some kind of hard money lunatic or if you feel like you have to pander to the hard money lunatics. That's it. Everyone else votes to support her confirmation. Should be an interesting roll call.

POSTSCRIPT: For more on the Heritage Foundation's descent from a think tank beloved of Republicans to a bullying ideological cop now loathed on Capitol Hill, check out Julia Ioffe's report here. It's a precautionary tale that's well worth a read.

Lara Logan Taking Leave of Absence From "60 Minutes"

| Tue Nov. 26, 2013 2:51 PM EST

HuffPo's Michael Calderone tweets: "Lara Logan and producer producer Max McClellan taking taking leave of absence from 60 Minutes, per Fager memo." This comes shortly after Calderone reported that Logan "will no longer be hosting the annual press freedom awards dinner hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists on Tuesday night, as she had long been scheduled to do."

That's not a big surprise. More to come on this, I'm sure.

UPDATE: Calderone has a full copy of the Fager memo here, along with a summary report of an investigation into Logan's Benghazi segment from Al Ortiz, Executive Director of Standards and Practices at CBS News. It validates virtually every outside criticism made of Logan's piece, which relied on the testimony of Dylan Davies, a security consultant who was in Benghazi on the night of the attacks and went on to write a book about it:

Logan’s report went to air without 60 Minutes knowing what Davies had told the FBI and the State Department about his own activities and location on the night of the attack....The wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm his account....[Davies'] admission that he had not told his employer the truth about his own actions should have been a red flag in the editorial vetting process.

....[Logan's] assertions that Al Qaeda carried out the attack and controlled the hospital were not adequately attributed in her report.....In October of 2012, one month before starting work on the Benghazi story, Logan made a speech in which she took a strong public position arguing that the US Government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda, and urging actions that the US should take in response to the Benghazi attack. From a CBS News Standards perspective, there is a conflict in taking a public position on the government’s handling of Benghazi and Al Qaeda, while continuing to report on the story.

....The book, written by Davies and a co-author, was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, part of the CBS Corporation. 60 Minutes erred in not disclosing that connection in the segment.

That's a whole lot of errors, all of which were preventable. Logan was just too anxious to tell this story in a particular way, and decided not to let reporting get in the way of it.

Also worth checking out: Jeff Stein's Newsweek piece a few days ago suggesting that Logan's husband may have played an instrumental behind-the-scenes role in shaping her Benghazi report.