Kevin Drum

An Important Question About April Fools['] Day

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 11:36 AM PDT

Let's take a break to discuss something important: Is it April Fools or Aprils Fools'? According to the AP style guide, it's April Fools'. However, Google's Ngram Viewer, which counts occurrences of phrases in books, tells a different, more nuanced story:

  • April Fools has been more common than April Fools' for the entire past century.
  • However, April Fools' Day has been far more common than April Fools Day.

So there you have it. Basically, you can probably punctuate it any way you want. Either way, though, I have some bad news for you: the usage of both terms has skyrocketed since 1960, increasing about 3x relative to everything else. This suggests, sadly, that we've all gotten way more obsessed with stupid April Fools jokes in recent years.

But there's also some good news: usage peaked around 2000 and has gone down over the past decade. Unless this is an artifact of Google's algorithm (which it might be), perhaps it means that we're finally getting tired of the whole thing. That's a nice thought, though I quail at the prospect of what's probably replacing it in our collective id.

BY THE WAY: The increasing popularity of trying to outfox April Fools-savvy readers by playing jokes on March 31 is no longer clever. Knock it off. If you really think you have something good enough to fool people in an amusing way, it should be good enough to work on April 1.

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This Weekend, Yet Another "60 Minutes" Screw-Up

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 9:58 AM PDT

On Sunday I watched 60 Minutes and caught their segment about the Tesla Model S. They had some footage of the car zipping along the road, and I was surprised by the throaty rumble it made while it was accelerating. It's an electric car, after all. It shouldn't sound like a Corvette.

Please note: I am, at best, a minor league car guy. I know very little about cars. But the sound of the Tesla S immediately drew my attention. Yesterday, 60 Minutes said it was all a mistake:

Our video editor made an audio editing error in our report about Elon Musk and Tesla last night. We regret the error and it is being corrected online.

This is not really believable. If I noticed this, then a minimum of dozens of people who worked on this segment would have noticed it. Besides, where did the V8-audio come from? Did the video editor just "accidentally" pull some off the shelf and mix it in? Repeatedly?

WTF is going on with 60 Minutes these days?

It's Groundhog Day for Paul Ryan, As He Unveils Yet Another Plan to Slash Spending on the Poor

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 9:45 AM PDT

Another year, another Paul Ryan budget. I'll be honest: I didn't have the energy to do more than flip through the FY2015 version. It's not as if anything changes much from year to year, and even Ryan seemed a little tired of the kabuki show this time around. Apparently this year's big innovation is to finally embrace dynamic scoring, aka magical thinking. You see, last year the CBO reduced its forecast of economic growth, which means that Ryan's budget would no longer be balanced unless he did something different. Raising taxes was obviously out of the question, and since Ryan has been trying to position himself as a compassionate defender of the poor lately, it would hardly do to slash safety net programs even further than he usually does. So he simply assumed that all his budget cutting would supercharge the economy and thus bring in more tax revenue and rebalance the budget. Mission accomplished!

Anyway, here's the bottom line from the Ryan blueprint:

Let's analyze this. Changes to Social Security and Medicare are minuscule. (Until after 2024, when Ryan eliminates traditional Medicare and replaces it with a version of his usual premium support plan.) The military has virtually no mandatory spending, so those cuts are all on the domestic side. A quick look at his section on national defense makes it clear that he plans no cuts to Pentagon discretionary spending, and Table S-5 shows that he actually wants to increase defense outlays compared to the current BCA caps. This means that the discretionary cuts are entirely on the domestic side. And there are no cuts to spending on the Global War on Terrorism.

So that leaves big cuts to Medicaid, Obamacare, and domestic spending. It would be unfair to say that all of Ryan's domestic cuts are to programs for the poor, but he sure lays out those particular cuts in unusually loving detail. So let's give him a break and assume that only two-thirds of the domestic cuts (the line items labeled "Other mandatory" and "Discretionary") are to safety net programs.

Outside of interest payments, then, the grand total of cuts for the non-poor amounts to $129 + $322 + $153 = $604 billion over ten years. The grand total of cuts to programs for the poor and working class amounts to $732 + $2,066 + $644 + $307 = $3,749.

So out of total non-interest cuts of $4,352, it looks like about 86 percent of them are targeted at programs for those with low-incomes. Ryan will doubtlessly deny this, as he always does, since his blueprint doesn't spell out all his cuts in detail. But the numbers are nevertheless clear. Maybe it's not 86 percent. Maybe it's 85 percent. Or 80 percent. The exact percentage doesn't matter. No matter how you slice it, Ryan is balancing the budget almost entirely by slashing spending on the poor.

Inside the Sloppy, Shadowy World of Debt Collectors

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 8:33 AM PDT

In yet another story that ought to be an April Fools joke but isn't, David Dayen reports on the sordid, shadowy world of debt collectors:

Last month, Amrit Singh, an adjunct professor at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, received a letter from the New York City Marshal, advising him that he owed $10,000, due within 20 days....Singh called the Marshal’s office, and they told him Atlantic Credit, a debt collection agency, secured a judgment against him for the $10,000....He was also told that the original debt came from HSBC Bank, for accumulated fees and interest on an account dating back to 2008. “This was more suspicious, because I had never opened an account with HSBC, neither me nor my wife,” Singh said. His credit report showed no record of him owing money to the bank, or any other credit incident matching this level of debt.

A colleague of Singh’s, hearing the story, had a theory. “He said, they probably told an intern, ‘Amrit Singh owes this money, go look up a name.’ And the intern found me.”

....“Creditors provide debt buyers with almost no data, no original contract, no backup information,” said Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Attorneys....Debt collectors pay miniscule amounts—between four and seven cents on the dollar—for the vague information they get, so they have little incentive to ask for a more legitimate product that might cost more. They simply turn around and try to collect, making guesses based on the names and account numbers given. “We see everything. They go after people with similar names, the same name, fathers and sons getting called on each other’s debts,” said Carolyn Coffey, a Supervising Attorney at MFY Legal Services, a non-profit law firm in New York City. “They figure they bought this for so cheap, as long as they get a few positive hits, they’re going to make money.”

In Singh's case, he was easily able to get the judgment tossed out. That's what usually happens if someone actually shows up in court to contest the debt. But that doesn't mean his misery is over. In many case, the debt collector just shrugs and sells the data to another debt collector and the whole nightmare starts all over. As for clearing up the black mark on his credit record—well, you can probably guess how likely a debt collector is to help with that process after fingering the wrong person.

Is there any hope for reform? Click the link to find out.

Obama Getting Taken to the Cleaners By Netanyahu?

| Tue Apr. 1, 2014 7:45 AM PDT

From the New York Times:

Officials involved in the fraught Israeli-Palestinian peace talks said on Tuesday that an agreement was near on extending the negotiations through 2015 in exchange for the release of Jonathan J. Pollard, an American serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. The agreement would also include the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including citizens of Israel, and a partial freeze on construction in West Bank settlements.

I dunno. Maybe Obama wanted to release Pollard anyway. But I doubt it. I'm beginning to wonder if the right-wing hawks are right after all: Obama is a terrible negotiator who gets taken for a ride by anyone willing to put a gun to his head.

Sadly, this is apparently not an April Fools joke. But I think it's safe to say that in return for Pollard's release, Netanyahu will "continue" negotiations, "partially" freeze West Bank settlements—i.e., not freeze them at all—and release a bunch of Palestinian prisoners he had already agreed to release. What a con.

Senate Report: Torture Didn't Work and the CIA Lied About It

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 10:28 PM PDT

The Washington Post has gotten hold of the Senate investigation into CIA interrogation practices and—

No, wait. They haven't. They've only learned what the report says "according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document." It's impossible to say if these sources are characterizing the report accurately, and their summary descriptions of the report make it very hard to judge how fair the report's conclusions are.

But with those caveats and cautions out of the way, what does the report say? This:

Several officials who have read the document said some of its most troubling sections deal not with detainee abuse but with discrepancies between the statements of senior CIA officials in Washington and the details revealed in the written communications of lower-level employees directly involved.

Officials said millions of records make clear that the CIA's ability to obtain the most valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda — including tips that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 — had little, if anything, to do with "enhanced interrogation techniques."

…"The CIA conflated what was gotten when, which led them to misrepresent the effectiveness of the program," said a second U.S. official who has reviewed the report. The official described the persistence of such misstatements as among "the most damaging" of the committee's conclusions.

Detainees' credentials also were exaggerated, officials said. Agency officials described Abu Zubaida as a senior al-Qaeda operative — and, therefore, someone who warranted coercive techniques — although experts later determined that he was essentially a facilitator who helped guide recruits to al-Qaeda training camps.

However, for those of us who think that detainee abuse is, in fact, as important as the lies that were told about it, there's this:

Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency's secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.

The report describes previously undisclosed cases of abuse, including the alleged repeated dunking of a terrorism suspect in tanks of ice water at a detention site in Afghanistan — a method that bore similarities to waterboarding but never appeared on any Justice Department-approved list of techniques.

So the torture was even worse than we thought; it produced very little in the way of actionable intelligence; and the CIA lied about this in order to preserve its ability to torture prisoners.

Anybody who isn't sickened by this needs to take very long, very deep look into their souls. For myself, I think I'll go take a shower now.

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What's Wrong With the Fed?

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 3:32 PM PDT

That's the question Ryan Avent asks today. The reason is simple: In 2012, the Fed announced an inflation target of 2 percent per year, as measured by the PCE index. But they haven't come close to hitting it. Why not?

The chart on the right shows the most recent inflation data. In 2011, PCE inflation measured 2.4 percent. In 2012, it came in at 1.8 percent. That's a little low—especially during a supposed economic recovery—but it's easy to see why no one was alarmed. It's something to keep an eye on, but no one ever said the Fed could fine tune inflation to a few tenths of a point.

But then came 2013. There was a fair amount of monthly variability in the data, but the year-end number clocked in at 1.1 percent. That's way too low, especially considering that (a) the previous year had come in below target, (b) inflationary expectations were still well anchored, and (c) the labor market was still noticeably loose. What this means is that the Fed has failed to meet its employment mandate for six full years and is now failing to meet its inflation target too. Avent wants to know what's going on:

This is an extraordinary period of time during which the Fed has failed to meet even the rather lax definition of the mandate it has set for itself by a rather substantial margin. How can we explain this? Some possibilities are:

1) The Fed is technically unable to meet its mandate.

2) The Fed is staffed by incompetents.

3) The Fed is actually pursuing a goal outside its mandate without explaining what that goal is and what the justification is for pursuing it.

4) America's statistics are all wrong. The Fed knows this but has refused to tell anyone else.

Whichever of the above you favour as an explanation, it suggests a need for meaningful reform, either to the personnel at the Fed or to the distribution of macroeconomic responsibilities across government.

My own guess is a little bit of #1 and a lot of #3. I suspect the Fed really is having technical trouble meeting its goals—at least, in a way it's comfortable with. But that's just a guess.

It's less of a guess that the Fed is pursuing goals outside its mandate. It's hardly a secret that there are plenty of Fed governors who are still living in the 70s, petrified of inflationary spirals and determined to keep inflation as low as possible. Not 2 percent. As low as possible. What's more, they consider full employment not a virtue, but a threat. It leads to higher inflation, after all.

I think 2014 is something of a watershed year for the Fed. The hawks can argue that a single year of 1 percent inflation is nothing to worry too much about. This stuff bounces around. But at the very least, they should be on board with getting the inflation rate back up to their stated goal. Given the current employment level and the state of the global economy, this poses little risk. If they aren't willing to do it, they need to come clean that they don't really care about their statutory mandates and are simply substituting their own timeworn fears and class loyalties for the expressed will of Congress.

It's Time to Start Quoting Our Public Figures Accurately

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 12:12 PM PDT

Jesse Sheidlower makes a point near and dear to my heart today: it's time to get rid of the dashes. You know the ones: f---, n-----, s---, etc. This is not a plea for reporters to write like Hunter S. Thompson, it's a plea to fully report the obscenities uttered by famous people that our news organizations are too delicate to report:

There have been numerous cases in recent years when the use of offensive language has been the news story itself. In 1998, Representative Dan Burton referred to President Clinton with an offensive word. In 2000, a microphone picked up George W. Bush using a vulgar term to describe the New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney insulted Senator Pat Leahy on the Senate floor with yet another vulgarity. In 2007, Isaiah Washington was kicked off the television show “Grey’s Anatomy” for referring to his fellow actor T. R. Knight with a gay slur. This January, Representative Michael Grimm threatened an aggressive reporter, using an obscenity.

These stories were covered widely, but in most cases, the details were obscured. The relevant words were described variously as “an obscenity,” “a vulgarity,” “an antigay epithet”; replaced with rhyming substitutions; printed with some letters omitted; and, most absurdly, in The Washington Times (whose editor confessed this was “an attempt at a little humor”), alluded to as “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.” We learn from these stories that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported.

When a public figure uses an obscenity, it's news. Readers deserve to know exactly what was said. Consider my favorite obscene quote of all time, courtesy of Richard Mottram, a British civil servant:

We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked.

You just don't get the flavor if you don't spell out the words. And in the US, we often don't even get the quote with the dashes. As Sheidlower says, we get "a vulgarity" or "a long string of obscenities" or something similar, making us feel like everyone else knows what happened and we're being deliberately left out. It's long past time to knock this off. News outlets should print the news, full stop. If an obscenity is part of it, accuracy and integrity are more important than delicate sensibilities.

LA Times: 9.5 Million Newly Insured By Obamacare

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 10:44 AM PDT

So how many people are newly insured thanks to Obamacare? Noam Levey of the LA Times provides the current best estimate, based on the latest enrollment and survey data:

As the law's initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

....Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

Rand's latest survey data suggests that the share of uninsured adults has declined from 20.9 percent last fall to 16.6 percent as of March 22. Gallup has also shown a decline in the uninsured, and its March poll will show a further decline, according to Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport. More details at the link.

Apple Has Patented Clicking on Phone Number to Dial a Phone? Seriously?

| Mon Mar. 31, 2014 9:15 AM PDT

The New York Times tells us today that Apple's lawsuit against Samsung is really just a proxy for its war against Google's Android operating system. That's not news. But this just makes me want to pound my head against a wall:

In the case set to open this week, Apple’s legal complaint aims at some of the features that Google, not Samsung, put in Android, like the ability to tap on a phone number inside a text message to dial the number. And although Google is not a defendant in this case, some of its executives are expected to testify as witnesses.

I know we all mock some of the things that seem to be patentable these days. I sure do. And who knows? Maybe those things really aren't quite as obvious as we all think they are. But tapping a phone number on a phone in order to dial it? There is no plausible universe in which several thousand designers wouldn't think of doing that. Somebody needs to put a leash on Apple before the venomous ghost of Steve Jobs drags them into a rabbit hole of techno-legal vengeance from which they never recover. Enough.