Monday, July 29, 2013

Most Amazing Video, Redux

Just want to make sure everybody sees Virginia Ted's response to the space shuttle blast-off video:

Just like Buck Rogers.

On the Personhood of Corporations

As you know, the Supreme Court held that corporations have the right to spend as much money on political contributions as they'd like, because they have a right to free speech just like people. This was a twisted interpretation of a long-established principle in law that allows corporations access to the law as though they really are people. They can make contracts, sue, and be sued, basically. Oh, yes – and be taxed!

Of course, this is a convenient legal fiction that moves things along for all of us. But corporations do not vote (yet), get drafted, get executed for murder, make love, or go to the bathroom (except into our drinking water).

The question of where to draw the line between the legal fiction of corporate personhood and "Hey, let's get real!" is under dispute. The Roberts Court, which has been busy lately limiting the voting rights of real American persons will likely be heard from again as it champions the rights of corporations to freedom of religion.

Steve Benen has a good take on current developments:
At issue is a cabinet-making company called Conestoga, whose Mennonite owners oppose birth control on religious grounds. They filed suit challenging the contraception provisions in the Affordable Care Act, arguing that their faith applies to their for-profit business -- the Hahn family, which owns Conestoga, doesn't like birth control, so the family wants to leave contraception access out of the company's health plan.
As of yesterday, that argument didn't go over well in court.
A federal appeals court said Friday that the owners of a private company could not challenge the contraception mandate in President Obama's healthcare law.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said the owners of Conestoga, a cabinet-making company, could not challenge the mandate because of their personal religious beliefs.
It's a pretty straightforward decision -- corporations may be people (my friend), but according to the 3rd Circuit, the Hahn family can have its religious beliefs, but the cabinet-making company does not have religious beliefs of its own.
"We simply conclude that the law has long recognized the distinction between the owners of a corporation and the corporation itself," wrote Judge Robert Cowen. "A holding to the contrary -- that a for-profit corporation can engage in religious exercise -- would eviscerate the fundamental principle that a corporation is a legally distinct entity from its owners.
The ruling added, "The [contraception provision] does not impose any requirements on the Hahns. Rather, compliance is placed squarely on Conestoga. If Conestoga fails to comply with the Mandate, the penalties ... would be brought against Conestoga, not the Hahns."
This may seem like common sense, but the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby has filed a nearly identical lawsuit -- its owners don't like birth control for religious reasons, either -- and as Sarah Posner recently explained, this company has had far more success at the 10th Circuit.
And when two federal appeals courts disagree on the same question, the U.S. Supreme Court generally intervenes to settle the dispute. We may, in other words, soon see a major legal showdown over whether corporations have their own distinct freedom of religion that affords businesses the right to block their employees' access to contraception.
With six Roman Catholics on the Court (and no Protestants), how do you feel about the corporations' chances of getting religious freedom?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mitch McConnell May Be in Trouble

The NY Times' 538 blog lists Kentucky's U.S. Senate seat as "likely" to remain Republican in 2014, but that's a step down from "safe".  Some interesting things are happening there. First, the incumbent Mitch McConnell could be upended in the Republican primary by an extremist Tea Party candidate. If he survives that, he still has to face a Democratic challenger.

Like Alison Lundegan Grimes:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Probably the Most Amazing Video I've Ever Seen

I'd need someone who's more space shot-savvy to tell me what's going on most of the time, but all-in-all, it's incredible. Make sure you watch it full screen.

Via Talking Points Memo.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Managing Your Money

Andrew Tobias
Long-time readers will know that I'm a fan of Andrew Tobias, author of The ONLY Investment Guide You'll EVER Need and My Vast Fortune. He's my second-favorite money guy.

But when he linked to this 1987 video of his interview by Werner Erhard, I was skeptical of how interesting it could be. Let's face it: most advice on money and investing has a shelf life of 2 or 3 years. I was wrong. Good, basic stuff, but with a sense of humor.

Example: Tobias says if you invested just 1 penny at 2% the day Christ was born, in 1987 you would have $198,000,000,000,000,000. He says this illustrates two things:

• Slow and steady does indeed win the race.

• No wonder the Catholic church has so much money.

[I'm not sure of Tobias' math there. Did he really mean only one penny invested, or one penny a day, or one penny a year?]

Anyway, it's two hours long, and I haven't finished it yet (neither, in fact, has he) but you might enjoy it, too.

You'll find it here.

Update: [A friend did the math. He does indeed mean just one penny invested. Now all you have to do is live 2014 years to collect.]

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Musical Interlude

Ed Kilgore over at The Washington Monthly posts this video of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood doing "Can't Find My Way Home." Kilgore says: "I have a distinct memory of listening to this tune on a tiny hi-fi in the hallway of the school where I worked part-time as a janitor. Hard times, good times."

My memory is of listening to it while washing dishes for Saga Foods in the college cafeteria. Though I can't claim they were hard times, they were definitely good times. Enjoy.

Friday, July 12, 2013

I ♥ Elizabeth Warren

Let me steal a couple of things from an article I'm going to link you to later. First, this graph:

You know what happened. In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banks. Suddenly, your conservative (in a good way), sober, dull local bank started using your life savings to buy the Wall Street version of lottery tickets. By the time things hit the fan in 2008, the banks were "too big to fail," and Uncle Sam had to choose between letting them collapse – which would throw the country into depression – and bailing them out.

Since this fit of Phil Gramm-induced idiocy (signed by Bill Clinton, I might add), just about everybody who wasn't pocketing money from it – and many who have – has called for the return of Glass-Steagall in some form.

Massachusetts' Senator Elizabeth Warren (the Goddess of Due Diligence and Patron Saint of Sanity) has introduced the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act, with co-sponsors John McCain [!], Angus King, and Maria Cantwell.

Why isn't your senator a co-sponsor? (Cape Cod Bob is justified in smirking at this point.)

Oh, yes. The article I was going to link to. It's at a site called The National Memo, which is new to me but appears to have a political slant towards facts.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Health Care in America (Sigh)

The Journal of the American Medical Association has published a study that compares health care outcomes in America to those in 34 rich countries. The United States came in 28th.

As Kevin Drum puts it: "We don't have the best healthcare in the world. We just don't. We have the most expensive healthcare in the world and the best-paid doctors in the world, but that's it. On pretty much every other measure, we suck."

Take a look at the chart. It's scary.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Sober Up, Kansas

Per Talking Points Memo EMC, the insurance company that covers 85 to 90 percent of Kansas schools, has confirmed it will not provide coverage for schools that allow staff to carry concealed weapons. A new Kansas law, effective July 1, allows teachers and school staff to carry concealed weapons to protect children.

A vice president of the Iowa-based company says:

"We’ve been writing school business for almost 40 years, and one of the underwriting guidelines we follow for schools is that any on-site armed security should be provided by uniformed, qualified law enforcement officers. Our guidelines have not recently changed.”

Actuaries to the rescue!

The Problem with Women These Days

From the Associated Press, via Talking Points Memo:
“Prominent art collector Charles Saatchi said Sunday he is divorcing his celebrity chef wife Nigella Lawson because she did not publicly defend his reputation after images emerged of him grasping her throat in a posh London restaurant.”

Saturday, July 06, 2013

"Listen to the Gentiles"

I really enjoyed Paul Krugman's essay on "How I Work," especially his Rules for Research, which are:
1. Listen to the Gentiles
2. Question the question
3. Dare to be silly
4. Simplify, simplify
While the essay is really addressed to other economists, and includes a lot of language I just have to bleep over because it's from another [i.e., economist] world, he tells a story that seems useful for other worlds. A couple of outtakes:

"What I mean by [Listen to the Gentiles] is 'Pay attention to what intelligent people are saying, even if they do not have your customs or speak your analytical language.'”

and, from his explanation of "Dare to be silly":
If you want to publish a paper in economic theory, there is a safe approach: make a conceptually minor but mathematically difficult extension to some familiar model. Because the basic assumptions of the model are already familiar, people will not regard them as strange; because you have done something technically difficult, you will be respected for your demonstration of firepower. Unfortunately, you will not have added much to human knowledge.
What I found myself doing in the new trade theory was pretty much the opposite. I found myself using assumptions that were unfamiliar, and doing very simple things with them. Doing this requires a lot of self-confidence, because initially people (especially referees) are almost certain not simply to criticize your work but to ridicule it. After all, your assumptions will surely look peculiar: a continuum of goods all with identical production functions, entering symmetrically into utility? Countries of identical economic size, with mirror-image factor endowments? Why, people will ask, should they be interested in a model with such silly assumptions — especially when there are evidently much smarter young people who demonstrate their quality by solving hard problems?
What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


It's hard to know what to think about what's going on in Egypt right now. As I'm writing this, a military coup seems certain.

Morsi, political leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the democratically elected President of Egypt. And he has screwed up, royally. Seemingly less interested in improving the nation's high unemployment and crime rates than in solidifying his own position, he has been taken by surprise. The NY Times reports:
The Egypt that Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood inherited was in a state of political and economic chaos that would have challenged any established government, yet they have sometimes seemed their own worst enemies. Even as the clock ticked on an ultimatum from the top generals — to meet the demands of the protesters or face military intervention, they remained deeply reluctant to acknowledge errors in governing or the depth of popular discontent. They saw only a conspiracy to topple the Islamists in the face of a new conflict with the generals.

There were so many streams, and the bulk of them may be legitimate, but behind it is still the same old forces of the old regime trying to come back up,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official close to the group’s most influential leader, Khairat el-Shater. [My emphasis.] Mr. Morsi echoed that accusation in a speech late Tuesday night.
Since I'm no fan of Morsi, it's easy to see the demonstrations as a good thing. And I do. But there are  a lot of things to be worried about. Do we really want a military coup? What does that say about our committment to democracy?

Luckily, neither Morsi nor the the Egyptian opposition have called me to ask what they should do.

Watch it all live here.

The NY Times quote above is from an article titled Depth of Discontent Threatens Muslim Brotherhood and Its Leader.

A good companion article is Morsi and Military Prepare for Collision in Egypt.

If you are tempted, even for a second, to think this is all a good thing, better read the corrective Report: Sexual Assaults Rampant in Egypt Protests. From Sunday to Tuesday, there were "86 reports of sexual assault at the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square". Quite a place, Egypt.

McClatchy, which always has something worth reading, asks Will military intervention end hopes for a democratic Egypt?

Fasten your seat belt.

Addendum: Be sure to read How Did the U.S. Lose the Egyptian People? It's a complicated mess, isn't it?

Second Addendum: The NYTimes has a new story up: Egypt's Military Moves Tanks Near Palace; Morsi Aide Sees Coup. A quote:
By 6:30 p.m. military forces began moving around Cairo. Tanks and troops headed for the presidential palace — although it was unclear whether Mr. Morsi was inside — while other soldiers ringed the nearby square where tens of thousands of the president’s supporters were rallying.
Many of the Islamists had armed themselves with makeshift clubs, shields made of potcovers or metal scraps and plastic hard hats, and there were small scuffles with the better-armed soldiers. Some soldiers fired their weapons in the air. But the military forces held back.
Mr. Morsi’s senior foreign policy adviser, Essam el-Haddad, issued an open letter Wednesday afternoon on his official Web page lamenting what he called the imminent takeover of Egypt’s first freely elected government.
“As I write these lines I am fully aware that these may be the last lines I get to post on this page,” he wrote. “For the sake of Egypt and for historical accuracy, let’s call what is happening by its real name: Military coup.”
 I'm sitting here in my home office, safely watching a revolution in Egypt. In real time. We live in amazing times.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Politico Crowd

From Steve Benen:

* Last week, the president unveiled a major new initiative to combat the climate crisis, and the combined coverage of all five major Sunday shows was zero minutes and zero seconds. Wow.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Remember the IRS Scandal?

George Will, who is a conservative – not in the former sense of cautious, sober, and traditional, but in the modern sense of irresponsible, mean, and cultic – was ready to talk impeachment when the IRS "scandal" first hit the news.

My, how things change in just a few weeks. Steve Benen has the round-up:
Over the years, the political world has seen plenty of scandals come and go, but I can't think of the last time a controversy flamed out as quickly and thoroughly as the IRS story. When the issue first broke in early May, we immediate [sic] talk about a Nixonian crisis that could bring down the White House, with pundits and politicians eagerly comparing it to the worst political scandals in history.
And then, all of a sudden, reality intruded and the controversy evaporated.
For Republicans, the problem is every central claim has been discredited. They said conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status were singled out for excessive IRS scrutiny, but we now know that wasn't true. They said conservative groups faced delays that liberal groups didn't have to endure, but that wasn't true, either. They said President Obama's critics were unfairly targeted, and that's ridiculously untrue.
Indeed, the irony of this week is that the previous allegations have not only been answered in a way that ends the discussion, but also that there are new allegations that turn the tables -- those who pushed the scandal are suddenly the ones who need to explain themselves.
The Treasury inspector general (IG) whose report helped drive the IRS targeting controversy says it limited its examination to conservative groups because of a request from House Republicans.
A spokesman for Russell George, Treasury's inspector general for tax administration, said they were asked by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) "to narrowly focus on Tea Party organizations."
This is important. The IG's report helped create the scandal, pointing to special scrutiny applied to Tea Party groups, but ignoring comparable scrutiny of progressive organizations that didn't fully come to light until this week. Why didn't the Inspector General provide a fairer, more accurate, and more encompassing report? Because according to the IG himself, Republicans told him to paint an incomplete picture on purpose.
The whole story, the IG's office said yesterday, "was outside the scope" of the audit requested by Republican lawmakers.
And with that in mind, in an unexpected twist, the congressional Republicans who relied so heavily on the IG's office to help create the controversy suddenly find themselves at odds with their ostensible ally.
House Republicans on Wednesday pushed back on an inspector general's suggestion that the GOP asked for a limited inquiry into the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, a statement Democrats have jumped on in recent days.
GOP lawmakers and staffers acknowledge that they reached out to Treasury's inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA) after hearing that Tea Party organizations seeking tax-exempt status felt they were being mistreated by the tax agency.
But Republicans also say that it made no sense for them to try to limit the inquiry to the Tea Party, because a broader inquiry would be needed to determine whether the IRS was treating conservative groups more harshly than other groups.
So the IG's office is blaming Republicans and Republicans are blaming the IG's office. Seven weeks after the political world pondered the prospect of president impeachment as a result of this story, it appears the only folks who aren't accused of doing anything wrong are President Obama, his staff, and Democrats.
It's funny how these things turn out, isn't it?
Of course, the next question is who's right about the party responsible for screwing up so badly: the Inspector General or congressional Republicans. At this point, it's difficult to say with certainty, but it's probably best not to reflexively blame GOP lawmakers.
Garance Franke-Ruta had a very interesting report on Tuesday on J. Russell George, the George W. Bush appointee who leads the IG's office and who helped Republicans create the controversy with his misleading report. George now appears eager to pass the buck, but as Garance reported, the inspector general "might not be the impartial arbiter he successfully presented himself to be," and may not have given accurate answers during his sworn testimony.
In May, George declined to answer questions about whether progressive groups were targeted, a kind cageyness that now raises questions about his impartiality in presenting findings about what went on at the IRS.
At the May 22 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing "The IRS: Targeting Americans for Their Beliefs," Chairman Darrell Issa asked George point-blank about "be on the lookout" orders: "Were there any BOLOs issued for progressive groups, liberal groups?"
"Sir, this is a very important question," the courtly George replied. "Please, I beg your indulgence .... The only 'be on the lookout,' that is BOLO, used to refer cases for political review were the ones that we described within our report."
"There were other BOLOs used for other purposes," he added -- such as "indicators of known fraud schemes" and, for "nationwide organizations, there were notes to refer state and local chapters to the same reviewers."
He did not mention the one now revealed for progressive groups.
Making matters worse, the Huffington Post's Sam Stein also reported this week that Gregory D. Kutz, one of the main authors of George's IG report, "had been relieved of" his previous position as head of the special investigations unit at the Government Accountability Office when he wrote an incomplete report and was accused by a colleague of "pursuing overly sensationalist stories."*
So, there may be a legitimate controversy here after all. It's just not the one the political world was obsessed with since early May. The trajectory is eerily similar to Benghazi: Darrell Issa and Republicans make serious charges, the charges are debunked, and the only remaining questions deal with allegations of Republican wrongdoing.
As for the pundits and politicians who spent seven weeks breathlessly speculating about Obama using the IRS as a political weapon to punish his enemies, we're still waiting for those corrections.