Kevin Drum

Eventually, Two Billionaires Will Duke It Out For President Every Four Years

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 12:20 PM EDT

This is from yesterday, but I really can't pass it up. Matea Gold and Tom Hamburger write in the Washington Post that presidential candidates are no longer much interested in "bundlers" who can raise a paltry million dollars or so for their campaigns. Terry Neese, a successful bundler for George W. Bush, is their poster child:

This year, no potential White House contender has called — not even Bush’s brother, Jeb. As of early Wednesday, the only contacts she had received were e-mails from staffers for two other likely candidates; both went to her spam folder.

“They are only going to people who are multi-multimillionaires and billionaires and raising big money first,” said Neese, who founded a successful employment agency. “Most of the people I talk to are kind of rolling their eyes and saying, ‘You know, we just don’t count anymore.’ ”

....In the words of one veteran GOP fundraiser, traditional bundlers have been sent down to the “minor leagues,” while mega-donors are “the major league players.”

The old-school fundraisers have been temporarily displaced in the early money chase because of the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations. This year, White House hopefuls are rushing to raise money for the groups before they declare their candidacies and have to keep their distance.

So does this matter? Does it matter whether candidates get contributions from a thousand millionaires vs. a hundred billionaires? Are their political views really very different?

In a way, I suppose not. Rich is rich. One difference, though, might be in the way specific industries get treated. If you take a ton of money from Sheldon Adelson or the Koch Brothers, you're more likely to oppose internet gambling and specific energy-related regulations than you might be if you were simply taking money from a whole bunch of different gambling and energy millionaires.

On a broader note, though, it has the potential to alienate the electorate even more. Things are bad enough already, but when it becomes clear that presidential candidates are practically being bought and sold by a literal handful of the ultra-rich, how hard is to remain uncynical about politics? Pretty hard.

In the end, maybe this doesn't matter so much. Big money is big money, and most people are already convinced that big money controls things in Washington DC. Still, as bad as things are, they can always get worse. Eventually, perhaps each successful candidate will be fully funded by a single billionaire willing to take a flyer with pocket money to see if they can get their guy elected. This is not a healthy world we're building.

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Middle East War Suddenly Getting a Lot More Warlike

| Thu Mar. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

I'm a little behind on the news right now, but it sure looks like things are getting a whole lot hotter in the Middle East. Here are a few headlines:

Saudi Jets Strike Yemen in Bid to Halt Houthis

Tikrit airstrikes draw U.S. into battle between militants and Iraqi forces

Obama Says He Will Delay Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan

Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

U.S. Role in Middle East Revamped Amid Chaos

That last headline comes from the Wall Street Journal, and seems to sum things up pretty well. The story includes this:

[Kenneth] Pollack, the former CIA analyst, said the military campaign in Yemen is unlikely to have a positive effect on the country’s fractured dynamics.

“The idea that this is going to produce some kind of a peaceful settlement is ridiculous,” Mr. Pollack said. “The more likely outcome is it just prolongs the stalemate.” The Persian Gulf countries could consider the use of ground troops to make progress, which should be a concern for the U.S., he said.

What could go wrong?

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

I'll be busy with various tests and doctor appointments all day Wednesday, so no blogging. I should be back on Thursday, health permitting.

Has Israel Given Up On Democrats?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Israel is doing its best to spy on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. No surprise there. But the Obama administration believes they've taken things too far:

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said....The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

....“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”

The upshot of all this is that support for Israel is rapidly becoming a partisan issue. “If you’re wondering whether something serious has shifted here, the answer is yes,” a senior U.S. official said. “These things leave scars.” This is not likely to be good for Israel in the long term.

Television Is a Vast Disease-Laden Wasteland

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

Jason Millman writes:

Maybe you've noticed that prescription drug ads are everywhere these days — more so than usual. You wouldn't be wrong.

Oh yes, I've noticed. It's one reason I watch less TV than I might otherwise—especially shows that are pitched to, um, mature demographics. I feel like I'm simply bombarded with ads about terrible diseases and all the terrible side effects that the advertised drugs might cause. Maybe I'm just having a harder time tuning out this stuff than usual, but I find it immensely depressing to be surrounded by reminders of disease every time I turn on the TV. Anyone else feel the same way?

Beware the Hype of New Medical Studies

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 12:58 PM EDT

Julia Belluz thinks the democratization of medical research may have gone too far:

I often wonder whether there is any value in reporting very early research. Journals now publish their findings, and the public seizes on them, but this wasn't always the case: journals were meant for peer-to-peer discussion, not mass consumption.

Working in the current system, we reporters feed on press releases from journals and it's difficult to resist the siren call of flashy findings. We are incentivized to find novel things to write about, just as scientists and research institutions need to attract attention to their work. Patients, of course, want better medicines, better procedures — and hope.

But this cycle is hurting us, and it's obscuring the truths research has to offer.

The truth, Belluz says, is that virtually all initial studies of promising new therapies fail to pan out. Only 6 percent of new journal articles each year are well-designed and relevant enough to inform patient care. Of these, only a fraction end up in a product that successfully makes it to market.

Dr. Oz may be the face of bad medical advice, but the fact is that it's all around us. We're all desperate for cures—I'd certainly like to see one for multiple myeloma—but most of them just don't go anywhere. Belluz has more about the siren call of new miracle cures at the link.

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Three Cheers For the California Miracle!

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Oh dear. Here's some bad news for Ted Cruz on his very first day as an official presidential candidate:

For years, business lobbyists complained about what they derided as "job killer" laws that drive employers out of California. Rival state governors, notably former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made highly publicized visits to the Golden State in hopes of poaching jobs.

But new numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tell a different story. Total jobs created in the 12 months ending Jan. 31 show California leading other states. California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State's total of 392,900 for the same period.

Them's the breaks. There's no more "Texas Miracle" for either Cruz or Rick Perry. We're in the middle of a California Miracle right now.

So how is Sodom on the Pacific pulling this off? Actually, that's pretty easy to answer. California was hit hard by the housing bubble, while Texas wasn't. So California's economy took a big hit during the recession and the slow recovery, while Texas did pretty well—aided and abetted by a rise in oil prices.

Now everything has turned around. California is rebounding strongly from the housing crisis while Texas is suffering from the global collapse in oil prices. There is, frankly, nothing very miraculous about either story. It's just the business cycle at work in a fairly normal and predictable way.

In fact, you may recall that there was never much of a Texas Miracle in the first place. It was mostly just PR bluster, as the chart on the right shows. The thick green line shows the unemployment rate in Texas compared to its neighboring states, and Texas is right smack in the middle—and it always has been. It's better than half a dozen nearby states and worse than another half dozen. It is, sad to say, entirely average. That's not something Texans are likely to take kindly to, but numbers don't lie.

Ted Cruz Throws His Hat In General Direction of Presidential Ring

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

The big news sweeping my Twitter feed last night was Ted Cruz's rather sudden decision to announce that he's running for president. Usually there's a warmup period of some kind (an "exploratory committee," etc.) but apparently Cruz decided to dispense with all that and simply throw his hat in the ring posthaste. The motivation for his sudden haste is a little mysterious at this point.

The other thing sweeping my Twitter feed was the fact that the URL tedcruz.com leads to the site on the right. Patrick Caldwell explains this and much more in his brisk overview of potential candidates and their unfortunate lack of attention to the basics of internet campaigning:

Unfortunately for the Texas Republican, long before he ran for Senate in 2012, TedCruz.com had been nabbed by an Arizona attorney who shares his name. Based on a search of the Wayback Machine, an internet archive, the Arizona Cruz's website dates back to at least early 2008, when it was a normal, if slightly Geocities-tinged, business website. "Putting All Your Real Estate Needs In 'CRUZ CONTROL,'" the attorney's tagline said at the time. But sometime within the past year he ditched his law site to instead mock the would-be-president. On a simple black background, in large font, the website screamed: "COMING SOON, Presidential Candidate, I Luv CHRISTIE!!!!!" Attorney Cruz wouldn't say anything to Mother Jones over email except to acknowledge that he has owned the domain for several years. But he deleted the section about loving Christie shortly thereafter. Given the initial message, though, it seems unlikely that the Arizona attorney will be easily persuaded to relinquish control of the domain to the senator.

That's bad luck, no? Still, at least Cruz has control of tedcruz.org. It was obviously thrown together pretty quickly, though at least it's got the basics. But why the slapdash approach? According to the New York Times this morning, Cruz was afraid of being upstaged: "By becoming the first candidate to declare himself officially in the race, Republicans briefed on his strategy said, Mr. Cruz hopes to reclaim the affection and attention of those on the party’s right wing who have begun eyeing other contenders, particularly Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin."

Cruz's official announcement, inevitably, will be done at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's shrine to the Christian Right. I think we can expect many, many more speeches and announcements from Republican wannabes there. But Cruz will be the first! Take that, Bobby Jindal!

Why Is Closed Captioning So Bad?

| Sun Mar. 22, 2015 12:24 PM EDT

Over at Marginal Revolution, commenter Jan A. asks:

Why is the (global) state of subtitling and closed captioning so bad?

a/ Subtitling and closed captioning are extremely efficient ways of learning new languages, for example for immigrants wanting to learn the language of their new country.

b/ Furthermore video is now offered on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, televisions... but very frequently these videos cannot be played with sound on (a phone on public transport, a laptop in public places, televisions in busy places like bars or shops,...).

c/ And most importantly of all, it is crucial for the deaf and hard of hearing.

So why is it so disappointingly bad? Is it just the price (lots of manual work still, despite assistive speech-to-text technologies)? Or don’t producers care?

I use closed captioning all the time even though I'm not really hard of hearing. I just have a hard time picking out dialog when there's a lot of ambient noise in the soundtrack—which is pretty routine these days. So I have a vested interest in higher quality closed captioning. My beef, however, isn't so much with the text itself, which is usually pretty close to the dialog, but with the fact that there are multiple closed captioning standards and sometimes none of them work properly, with the captions either being way out of sync with the dialog or else only partially available. (That is, about one sentence out of three actually gets captioned.)

Given the (a) technical simplicity and low bandwidth required for proper closed captions, and (b) the rather large audience of viewers with hearing difficulties, it surprises me that these problems are so common. I don't suppose that captioning problems cost TV stations a ton of viewers, but they surely cost them a few here and there. Why is it so hard to get right?

POSTSCRIPT: Note that I'm not talking here about real-time captioning, as in live news and sports programming. I understand why it's difficult to do that well.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 20, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

Appearances to the contrary, I might be getting better this morning. Cross your fingers, and we'll see how things go tomorrow.

Our hummingbird babies are fully mobile! I took some pictures of them this morning, and when I carefully edged in for a slightly closer angle they took off like a shot. This was plainly not their maiden voyage. They're all grown up now. Sniff.

In other news, longtime readers will remember that I once blogged about Louis the cathedral cat after a visit to Wells Cathedral in 2008. He was very friendly. However, in one of those inevitable town-gown controversies, Louis is now being accused of attacking dogs in the nearby area. But it might just be a case of mistaken identity: "I’ve heard there is another ginger cat around at the moment," said one witness, "and it’s quite possible that it’s him attacking dogs. We don’t know for sure whether or not Louis was involved. Louis had definitely been in the shop just before the incident happened outside, but it could have been a different cat."