Kevin Drum

Once Again: What's the Deal With the Pretense That the Academy Awards Are Supposed to Last 3 Hours?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 5:41 PM EST

Kelsey McKinney writes today about why Joan Rivers was left out of the "In Memoriam" segment at the Oscars last night:

The sequence, ultimately, only has so much room. Every year dozens of Academy Award nominees die, but there's only room to memorialize about 30 of them in a show that almost always runs over time already.

Whoa. Hold on. The Academy Awards almost never run over time. They are, quite plainly, expected to last 3½ hours. For one thing, they always last 3½ hours.1 For another, there's abundant evidence that show directors know exactly how long each bit is going to last. And there's also the evidence of other awards shows, which demonstrates that directors can hit a scheduled end mark within a minute or two. Every time. So they know perfectly well that the Oscar telecast is going to last 3½ hours.

But for some reason, the publicly acknowledged length of the show is 3 hours. Why? I've asked this before. It can't be too deep a secret since it's so obviously planned this way and has been for years. But why?

1Actually this year they really did run long, a little over 3 hours and 35 minutes. But that's unusual.

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New Retirement Regs Might Pose a Campaign Problem for Republicans

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 3:01 PM EST

Congress is now controlled by Republicans, and it's unlikely they're going to pass any of the items on President Obama's agenda. But what about executive actions? Are there any more of those left in Obama's toolkit?

Jared Bernstein says yes. Forty years ago, when rules were set regarding retirement programs, most retirement funds were managed by corporations or unions, and it was assumed that the fund managers were financially sophisticated. This meant the rules could be fairly light. But that's obviously changed: most pensions these days are IRA and 401(k) accounts that are managed by individuals who often have a hard time telling good advice from bad:

The result was a lot of people without a lot of investment acumen trying to wade through thickets of annuities, bonds, securities, and index funds, often guided by advisors and brokers who they assumed were wholly on their side.

Many were — but research shows that many were, and are — not always acting in their clients’ best interest, generating unnecessary fees and charges that erode retirement savings. The newly proposed rule, which does not require Congressional approval, meaning it could actually come to fruition, realigns incentives in the interest of individual investors by requiring retirement financial advisers to follow an established standard (a “fudiciary standard”) to act in their clients’ interest.

....The new fiduciary standard should block what honest brokers call “over-managing:” unnecessary rollovers, churning (over-active buying and selling that generates brokers’ fees at the expense of returns), and the pushing of expensive and risky products like variable annuities.

All of which turns out to be extremely costly to retirees....Conflicted advice reduces returns by about 1 percent per year, such that a poorly advised saver might end up with a 5 percent vs. a 6 percent return. They multiply that 1 percent by the $1.7 trillion of IRA assets “invested in products that generally provide payments that generate conflicts of interest” and conclude that the “the aggregate annual cost of conflicted advice is about $17 billion each year.”

According to Bernstein, a White House study suggests that this difference between 5 and 6 percent returns can amount to five years of retirement savings under plausible assumptions. That's a lot.

Needless to say, the financial industry is strongly opposed to this rule change, and I think we can safely assume that this means Fox News will be raising the alarums too. Their argument, apparently, is that if they're prohibited from giving small clients bad advice, it just won't be worth it to bother with small clients at all. Maybe so. But as Bernstein says, if that's really the case then "maybe there’s a hitch in your business model."

This has the potential to be an interesting campaign issue. Most Democrats, even those with close ties to the financial industry (*cough* Hillary *cough*) should have no trouble supporting this rule change. That's a slam dunk winner with retirees and most of the middle class. Republicans will have a harder time. After all, this represents regulation, and Republicans oppose regulation. They especially oppose financial regulation, as they've proven by their relentless efforts to roll back even the modest Dodd-Frank regulation adopted after the financial crash.

So what will they do? Stick to their principles and oppose the new regs? That will sure provide Democrats with an easy sound bite. Jeb Bush opposes a rule that prevents brokers from deliberately giving you bad retirement advice. I don't think I'd like to be the candidate who has to answer for that.

Is It Fair to Keep Peppering Scott Walker With Gotcha Questions?

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 1:56 PM EST

Lately Scott Walker has been asked:

  • Whether he agrees with Rudy Giuliani's comment that President Obama doesn't love America.
  • Whether he believes in evolution.
  • Whether he believes that Obama is a Christian.

Is this fair? Why is Walker being peppered with gotcha questions like this? Are Democrats getting the same treatment?

There are no Democrats running for president yet, so it's hard to say what kind of questions they're going to be asked. But if Hillary Clinton attends a fundraising dinner where, say, Michael Moore suggests that Dick Cheney should be tried as a war criminal, I'm pretty sure Hillary will be asked if she agrees. And asked and asked and asked.

As for the other stuff Walker is being asked about—evolution, climate change, Obama's religion, etc.—there really is a good reason for getting someone like Walker on the record. He's basically a tea party guy who's trying to appear more mainstream than the other tea party guys, and everyone knows that there are certain issues that are tea party hot buttons. So you have to ask about them to take the measure of the man. Sure, they're gotcha questions, but they have a legitimate purpose: to find out if Walker is a pure tea party creature or not. That's a matter of real public interest.

Conservatives are complaining that Walker is facing a double standard. Maybe. We'll find out when Hillary and the rest of the Democratic field start campaigning in earnest. But I'm curious. What kinds of similar questions would be gotchas for Democrats? Drivers licenses for undocumented workers? Support for single-payer healthcare? Those aren't really the same, but I can't come up with anything that is. It needs to be something that's either conspiracy-theorish or else something where the liberal base conflicts with the scientific consensus, and I'm not sure what that is. GMO foods? Heritability of IQ? Whether George Bush stole the 2004 election by tampering with voting machines? I'm stretching here, but that's because nothing really comes to mind.

Help me out. What kinds of Scott-Walkerish gotcha questions should reporters be saving up for Hillary?

Factlet of the Day: Office Workers Will Soon Have Less Space Than Supermax Prisoners

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 1:31 PM EST

The open plan revolution has wrought its havoc:

The average amount of space per office worker in North America dropped to 176 square feet in 2012, from 225 in 2010, according to CoreNet Global, a commercial real estate association.

Here's the "explanation":

Bosses — and the designers and architects they hire — are betting that most employees will not notice the difference. “The balance between individual spaces and community spaces has changed drastically,” said David Bright, a senior vice president of Knoll, the office furnishing manufacturer, “with shared and community spaces taking up a greater proportion of space than they once did.”

....The argument for more communal space is that open offices foster communication and accidental creativity — that serendipity is a plus, if serendipity is defined as bumping into co-workers and chatting about projects they may not necessarily be assigned to.

Oh, I'm willing to bet that employees have noticed the difference. Maybe not the 20-somethings who have never been treated like anything but cattle in their lives, but everyone else feels the squeeze. They'll shut up about it, because who wants to be the old dinosaur opposed to "communication and accidental creativity"? But believe me, they've all noticed.

Climate Change Deniers Take Yet Another Hit

| Sun Feb. 22, 2015 12:31 PM EST

Climate change deniers don't have a lot of credible scientists who support their view. But they have a few, and one of the busiest and most prolific is Wei-Hock Soon, who insists that global warming is caused by variations in the sun's output, not by anything humans are doing. Soon's doctorate is in aerospace engineering, not atmospheric science or geophysics or some more relevant discipline, but he's nonetheless an actual scientist and a reliable ally for the climate deniers.

Unfortunately, the New York Times reports a wee problem with Soon's work:

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.

Oops. But a friend of mine suggests that the real news is the way climate change was treated by the Times reporters who wrote the story. Here are a few snippets:

The documents shed light on the role of scientists like Dr. Soon in fostering public debate over whether human activity is causing global warming. The vast majority of experts have concluded that it is and that greenhouse emissions pose long-term risks to civilization.

....Many experts in the field say that Dr. Soon uses out-of-date data, publishes spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and does not take account of the evidence implicating emissions from human behavior in climate change....“The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless,” [said Gavin A. Schmidt, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan].

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, whose scientists focus largely on understanding distant stars and galaxies, routinely distances itself from Dr. Soon’s findings. The Smithsonian has also published a statement accepting the scientific consensus on climate change.

Etc.

There's no he-said-she-said in this piece. No critics are quoted suggesting that there's an honest controversy about human contributions to climate change. There's no weaseling. It's simply assumed that climate change is real and humans are a primary cause—the same way a similar article might assume that evolution or general relativity are true.

I haven't followed the Times' coverage of climate change in close enough detail to know if this represents an editorial change of direction or not. But whether it's new or not, it's nice to see. More please.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 February 2015

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 4:00 PM EST

The quilts are back! This is Hopper peering down from the second story hallway and surveying her domain from between the quilts hanging over the railing. Amusingly, Hilbert saw her and immediately started fussing and mewling, trying to figure out to get up to her. He jumped on a bench, but that wasn't high enough. He put his paws up on the wall, but plainly couldn't climb up it. Finally, after about a minute of this nonsense, a neuron fired somewhere and he remembered that all he had to do was run up the stairs. So he did, and then immediately lost interest in whatever it was he thought he wanted. But it was touch and go there for a while.

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Will Stonewalling Work For Bill O'Reilly in Falklandsgate?

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 3:28 PM EST

Over at the mothership, David Corn and Daniel Schulman report that Bill O'Reilly might have a problem with the truth that's surprisingly similar to Brian Williams'. Basically, they both seem to have a habit of exaggerating their war-reporting prowess. In Williams' case, it was about a helicopter during the Iraq War. In O'Reilly's case, he's repeatedly said that he was "in a war zone in Argentina" during the Falklands war, but in fact he was never anywhere near the actual war. He was a thousand miles away in Buenos Aires:

O'Reilly did see some action in Argentina— just not war action. He writes in The No Spin Zone that shortly after he hit Buenos Aires—where CBS News had set up a large bureau in the Sheraton hotel—thousands of Argentines took to the streets, angry at the military junta for having yielded to the Brits.

As he tells it in his book, O'Reilly, then 32 years old, raced to cover the event: "A major riot ensued and many were killed. I was right in the middle of it and nearly died of a heart attack when a soldier, standing about ten feet away, pointed his automatic weapon directly at my head." A television cameraman was trampled, journalists were banged up, and O'Reilly and others were teargassed. "After a couple of hours of this pandemonium," he recalls, "I managed to make it back to the Sheraton with the best news footage I have ever seen. This was major violence up close and personal, and it was an important international story."

Now, even this might be a bit of an exaggeration—click the link for details—but put that aside for the moment. It's pretty obvious that a protest, even a violent protest, isn't a war zone or anything close to it. O'Reilly can bob and weave all he wants, but no one is going to buy the idea that covering a protest in Buenos Aires is anything like reporting from a war zone.

Nonetheless, I suspect we're about to witness an interesting phenomenon. In the case of Brian Williams, NBC caved in to pressure pretty quickly and suspended him for six months. It's possible that his career is over. In O'Reilly's case, the response so far has been (a) silence from Fox News and (b) a torrent of insults and abuse from O'Reilly. And my guess is that it will work. The Williams case generated a ton of commentary. So far, the O'Reilly case has generated very little. As long as both Fox and O'Reilly stonewall, it will probably stay that way. It will be a momentary squall and then it will blow over.

Stonewalling often works. We're about to find out if it will work here.

Quote of the Day: The Surveys Will Continue Until Morale Improves

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 2:00 PM EST

From a study of low morale in the Department of Homeland Security, explaining why the authors hadn't made much progress in figuring out why morale was low:

“Other entities had already engaged employees in efforts to assess morale,” and as a result, DHS employees were developing “interview/survey fatigue.”

Survey fatigue! Otherwise known as stop screwing around with your endless damn assessments and just do something, OK?

But apparently more studies are in the works anyway. Will they improve morale? Stay tuned for next week's exciting episode!

Men Complain Far More Than Women About Work-Family Conflicts

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 1:13 PM EST

Danielle Kurtzleben points to an interesting chart today from the White House's Economic Report of the President. It's based on only two data points (1977 and 2008), but it's still kind of intriguing.

Since 1977, two things have happened. First, more women have entered the paid workforce. Second, more men have started doing housework. It's hardly surprising, then, that both men and women report more work-family conflicts than they used to. But among women, this number has gone up only 6 points. Among men, it's gone up a whopping 25 points. Why the difference? Here are some possibilities:

  • In the period 1977-2008, female participation in the workforce went up only about 11 percentage points. So a rise of 6 points in work-family conflicts is within the range you'd expect.
  • Men feel worse about adding housework to an existing job than women do about adding a paid job to existing housework. Some of this might be about the pay. Some of it might be about men feeling that housework is humiliating in some way. Some of it might be about workplaces being less sympathetic to men who want more flexibility for family reasons.
  • "Conflict" can also be another word for guilt. There's always a certain amount of badgering from the boss in any kind of job, and badgering from your wife might produce more feelings of resentment and guilt than badgering from your employer.
  • Men are just bigger whiners than women.

I'd probably put my money on the first and third reasons—though the last one has a lot going for it too. And if I had to pick only one, I'd pick the first. Over the past few decades, there has just been way more growth in the number of men expected to do housework than in women entering the paid workforce. So it's hardly surprising that there's also more growth among men in work-family complaints.

But that's just a guess. Feel free to school me in comments.

Despot-in-Chief Back to His Lawless Ways Yet Again

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 12:00 PM EST

Cue up the cries of tyranny, folks. The despot-in-chief is at his lawless ways yet again:

The Obama administration said it would allow people to sign up for plans on HealthCare.gov through April to avoid tax penalties for going uncovered in 2015. The extension, which adds more than two months to the enrollment period for health coverage this year, was announced by Health and Human Services officials on Friday.

....People who pay penalties for going uncovered in 2014 and are still uninsured will be allowed to visit HealthCare.gov until the end of April....They will be able to apply for coverage starting March 15 as long as they attest that they didn’t learn about the health law’s requirement to carry insurance or pay the fine when they filed their taxes.

This is basically a recognition of the real-world reality that a lot of people are going to be pissed off when they realize they have to pay a tax penalty for lacking health insurance. So HHS is giving them a choice: once you find out about the penalty, you can either pay it or sign up for health coverage.

Does this make sense? Is HHS within its rights to do this? Will it help lots of people who are genuinely confused about the law? Is it just a bit of ass-covering from the Obama administration, which knows it will otherwise face a big backlash from folks who have to pay a penalty?

It doesn't really matter. It's lawlessness. It's tyranny. It's Obama shredding the Constitution yet again. It's the end of the America we love. The soundtrack for this movie is a beloved conservative classic, and it's coming to a TV screen near you in 3, 2, 1....