October 25, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 5:44 PM


The $500 Billion Medicare Slowdown: A Story About Part D (Loren Adler and Adam Rosenberg, 10/21/14, HealthAffairs.org)

A great deal of analysis has been published on the causes of the health care spending slowdown system-wide -- including in the pages of Health Affairs. Much attention in particular has focused on the remarkable slowdown in Medicare spending over the past few years, and rightfully so: Spending per beneficiary actually shrank (!) by one percent this year (or grew only one percent if one removes the effects of temporary policy changes).

Yet the disproportionate role played by prescription drug spending (or Part D) has seemingly escaped notice. Despite constituting barely more than 10 percent of Medicare spending, our analysis shows that Part D has accounted for over 60 percent of the slowdown in Medicare benefits since 2011 (beyond the sequestration contained in the 2011 Budget Control Act).

Through April of this year, the last time the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released detailed estimates of Medicare spending, CBO has lowered its projections of total spending on Medicare benefits from 2012 through 2021 by $370 billion, excluding sequestration savings. The $225 billion of that decline accounted for by Part D represents an astounding 24 percent of Part D spending. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:41 AM


No, Americans Are Not All To Blame for the Financial Crisis : Exposing the big lie of the post-crash economy (Dean Starkman, 10/23/14, New Republic)

To say that borrowers don't deserve equal blame for the crisis doesn't mean that every individual borrower was innocent. There is no question that "mortgage fraud"--which the FBI defines as misrepresentations relied upon by underwriters, i.e. banks--did account for a percentage of the losses. It's just that the amount of borrower behavior fitting that definition is vanishingly small. Before it collapsed, for instance, New Century reported that borrowers had failed to make even the first payment on 2.5 percent of its loans. That doesn't speak well of borrowers, at all. It's also only 2.5 percent. Zooming out, the Treasury Department reported that so-called "suspicious activity" reported by banks peaked at 137,000 incidents in 2006. But even if every single one of those reports represents actual borrower fraud (spoiler: they don't), that's still only about 1 percent of the 14 million mortgages made that year.

One way a borrower can defraud a lender is to pretend to plan on living in the home--because mortgages on primary residences are easier to obtain and carry lower rates--when in fact you're buying it as an investment or vacation property. We know from lawsuits brought by the conservator for Fannie Mae that the number of owner-occupied houses in the mortgage pool was off by as much as 15 percentage points. Some portion of those houses belonged to people who said they lived in them, but didn't. That's definitely something buyers fib about. On the other hand, it often requires a wink from the bank, since residency is easy to check. But most important: Even if the number is the full 15 percent, that's still well south of EITB.

In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year's crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous "cagey" borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault. The ratio looks roughly something like this: 

Yes, some of our cab drivers, shoeshine boys, and other fellow citizens tricked a lender into helping them take a flyer on the housing market. But the combined share of the blame for bad mortgages that can be placed on the public sits--and I'm really rounding up here--in the high single digits, and not the much larger, fuzzier numbers in our heads.

The fact is that defrauding a bank that actually cares about the quality of a loan is actually rather difficult, no matter how aggressive or deceitful the borrower. Lenders, on the other hand, can lie with relative ease about all sorts of things, and mountains of evidence show they did so on a widespread basis. For starters, it's lenders who establish the loan-to-value ratio for a property: how much money the buyer is borrowing versus the house's estimated worth. Banks didn't used to let you take out a mortgage too close to the home's total cost. But play with those numbers and, voilà, a rejected loan application turns into an accepted one. Leading up to the crash, some banks' representations about loan-to-value ratios were off by as much as 40 percentage points.

Then there was the apparent rampant corruption of appraisals, which also have nothing whatsoever to do with borrowers. Before the bubble popped, appraisers' groups collected 11,000 signatures on a petition decrying pressure by banks to arrive at "dishonest" or inflated valuations.

And that's to say nothing of lenders misleading borrowers directly--a practice that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the Levin-Coburn report, and lawsuits by attorneys general around the country have all found was very much systemic. Mortgage brokers forged borrowers' signatures and altered documents; Ameriquest (those guys again!) had its own "art department," as it was known internally, for precisely that function. Oh, and remember those 137,000 instances of "suspicious activity" about possible borrower misdeeds? For the sake of perspective, Citigroup settled a Federal Trade Commission case alleging sales deception that involved two million clients in a single year. That's what we call wholesale, and it was happening before the mortgage era even really got started.

Today, there's a big and growing body of documentation about what happened as the financial system became incentivized to sell as many loans as possible on the most burdensome possible terms: Millions--and millions--of borrowers were sold subprime despite qualifying for better.

Perhaps the most astonishing and unappreciated finding comes from The Wall Street Journal, which back in December 2007 published a study of more than $2.5 trillion in subprime loans dating to 2000 (that is to say, most of the subprime loans of the era). The story, by my former colleagues Rick Brooks and Ruth Simon, painted the picture of a world gone upside-down: During the worst years of the frenzy, more than half the subprime loans issued went to borrowers who had credit scores "high enough to often qualify for conventional loans with far better terms." In 2006, the figure hit 61 percent.

The fact is that credit wasn't too easy, but too hard.  And given the deflationary climate mortgage rates should have been much lower, making payments easier for even the highest risk borrowers.  The crisis occured because the people selling mortgages on were lying about how much risk they entailed.

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 AM


The Optimistic Republican Story Everyone Is Missing (Larry Kudlow, October 25, 2014, RCP)

"We all see this coming," House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan told me in a recent interview. "Energy and tax reform are going to be at the top of the list." And House Financial Services chairman Jeb Hensarling told me, "It's time to put up or shut up for tax reform. Fairer, flatter, simpler, so the American people will at last know what the GOP would do for economic growth to rescue the country from the worst recovery since World War II."

Hensarling also emphasized the need to expand the energy revolution and to stop the massive overregulation that has stunted growth. "The regulatory red-tape burden, which violates the Founding Fathers' Federalist paper 47 by diminishing the rule of law and increasing bureaucratic power in the executive branch at the expense of the constitutionally mandated legislative branch, has got to be stopped."

Let me weigh in on the first two bills that the GOP should put on Obama's desk.

The Republicans should start with energy by legislating a Keystone Pipeline Authorization Act (this is how the Alaska pipeline was approved in 1979), and include energy reforms that would open federal lands to development and drilling and remove all restrictions to energy exports.

More energy supply means lower energy prices and more overall economic growth. Everybody benefits. Who loses? Our enemy Vladimir Putin and his client state Iran. And if Obama kowtows again to the left-wing enviros, so be it. It's a 2016 GOP agenda item.

Second would be a business tax-reform plan that would slash the corporate tax rate to 20 percent, stop the double taxation of foreign profits and allow small business S-corps (including unborn start-ups, which are America's real job creators) to take advantage of the new lower corporate tax rate. This tax cut should also be scored with a reality-based economic-feedback model.

But the key here is that the GOP regains its footing as the party of optimism and growth. 

...and get rid of taxes on profits, replacing them with gas taxes. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:13 AM


Shaheen's message being drowned out by Obama, Ebola, ISIS (John DiStaso, Oct 25, 2014, NH Journal)
The Democratic incumbent tried at every turn during two separate hour-long debates to bring the conversations back to her strong point - her many years serving the state as governor and, now as a U.S. senator, and even in the past as a state senator.
She brought up her work for the Berlin Prison, her work to secure funding for the I-93 expansion, her work for the Jobs Corps Center in Manchester, her work for individual constituents.
She tried and tried to emphasize her deep roots in the Granite State. She tried at every opportunity to cast Scott Brown as an outsider, an opportunist, a guy who, unable to win in Massachusetts, conveniently moved into his summer home in New Hampshire to use the state as a stepping stone - perhaps even higher office.
But as much as she tried, her arguments were drowned out by the broader issues facing the nation. And that of course brought the conversations back to one Barack Obama.

There's a really interesting poll out this week:

Among the likely voters, Shaheen led, 49 to 46 percent, with 3 percent undecided, and a margin of error of 4.5 percent. [...]
Yet, by a margin of 59 to 30 percent, likely voters believe Shaheen will win the Senate race, the poll shows.

One suspects this is a matter of voters saying, "I've decided to vote for him, but I get why my neighbors would vote for her."  The question is : are enough neighbors saying the same thing?

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 AM


No, undecided voters don't break for the challenger (Aaron Blake May 9, 2014, Washington Post)

According to a Fix study of 25 competitive U.S. Senate races held over the last four elections, undecideds actually appear to break more for the incumbent than for the challenger. The below chart compares the final Real Clear Politics polling averages for all 25 races to the final results of those same races. Incumbents are in red, and challengers are in green. [...]

A few takeaways:

1) The average incumbent saw his or her share of the vote rise 2.5 points between the late polls and Election Day. For challengers, their share rose just 1.6 points.

2) Even in states that matched the challenger's political lean (Democratic challengers in blue states and Republican challengers in red states), undecided voters weren't any friendlier. Incumbents beat their polling numbers by 2.6 points in these states, while challengers added only 1.5 points.

2) Only nine out of 25 challengers (36 percent) took more undecided voters than the incumbents they faced.

3) Nearly as many -- eight out of 25 -- actually took less of the overall vote than the late polls suggested.

4) Only three out of the 25 incumbents underperformed late polls when it came to their share of the vote. A strong majority (16 out of 25) saw their share of the vote exceed late polls by at least two full points.

And finally...

5) Not one challenger who was trailing heading into Election Day was able to pull off the victory -- even as six of them faced an incumbent who was below 50 percent in the polls. Two incumbents who trailed, meanwhile, were able to pull off the upset.

That makes sense if we assume that for anyone who genuinely hasn't made up their mind that late, name recognition might trump everything else. Of course, in races lower down the ticket no one recognizes either candidate's name...

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 AM


So here's the email I got Monday with my marching orders for the week:

Avery needs to be picked up from school and brought to dance (she said she spoke with you).  I can get her from dance.
Archer has soccer practice at Sachem at 4:30 today
Griffin is going to RVC after school and I will pick him up
Avery has some Trumbull hall thing at the Haven after school - I'm not sure how she's getting there.  I'll check with her.  She has a trombone lesson at our house later in the afternoon.
Archer may be doing model UN or homework club after school on Tuesday - it's impossible to get info from him so I'll try and get that figured out today.
Griffin is working
Archer has hockey at 5:50
Avery has voice Wed 2:30-3
Archer has tennis Wed and has a soccer game in Canaan at 5:15.  Will is supposed to be with Archer and you take them to the game.  He may need to leave tennis a bit early.  I will ask your mother to bring him to tennis (I'm at CVH). 
I believe Avery is working on Wed
Archer may or may not have a music lesson - I have to double check on that one
Friday and Saturday are problems for Archer - he has soccer games both days at the same time he has hockey.  Friday hockey is a practice.  Saturday is their first hockey game, but it's against Woodstock (so no points and Woodstock usually wins).  I guess it's up to Archer which he would rather do....

So blessed Thursday was going to be the one day I didn't have to squire rugrats around the Upper Valley.  Then this text:

DAUGHTER : Library at 3 please?


D: Because I have dance

F: That's not on the list Mom gave me

D: ....

D: Can you please give me a ride anyway

F: You're not on the schedule

F: If I make an exception for you i have to make them for everyone

F: Soon we have anarchy 

F: Cats and dogs sleeping together


F: Is that what you want? The zombie apocalypse?


F: So you'll take responsibility

D: You're so funny--Thea (on daughter's phone)

D: I hate you-Daughter

F: So, no ride?


F: From someone you hate?

F: BTW, I can do this all afternoon, I'm waiting for E to clean the house and I'm wicked bored

D: Well I have class in twenty minutes

D: BTW ny friends find you incredibly amusing

F: I'll give them rides

D: Oh my God


D: If I go home can you bring me to rehearsal at 3:45

F: Normally I would since you're on the schedule, but yesterday's unscheduled ride cancels today's out....

{sure, c'mon home}

D: It's a good thing you ended with that because I'm about to stab you

F: See, it's anarchy....

D: It's going to be a felony if you don't stop....

F: There are no felonies anymore, all law and order has disappeared... Happy now?

Posted by orrinj at 7:36 AM

MY HERO (self-reference alert)

This Marriage Thing Is (Beautiful) Hard as Hell (Maria Grizzetti, 10/22/14, Incarnation and Modernity)

 It seems clear that the daily business of married life is difficult before it is delightful. We are talking here of married life that is consecrated. We are talking of holy matrimony.

Ordinary human friendship has its many joys. The companionship that elicits delight, and slowly turns to love, and finally to consecrated spousal union, is a joy given to the human race from the time when God told Adam that it was not good for man to be alone.

But as it is not good to be alone, it is also not easy to be together.

Which begs the question: what keeps marriages alive? What is the glue that binds?

You look at these couples married fifty years. You see one dancing around a hospital room to cheer a spouse who is bedridden and dying. They smile as if they were youngsters on a park bench, or newlyweds walking down aisle at twenty-three. Unthinkable these days, but now half a century of love later they live out a witness to the possibility of faithful life together. Theirs are joys that will not die even in the night of sorrowful partings.

Surely they know something of what it takes. Yes, the answer is love. A love they treasure and believe possible -- unconditional love. Fine. We will listen. Watch them. We shall learn.

And then you see the young ones, married two years and on the brink of separation. Or divorced with two kids and about to turn thirty-four. And they still believe that matrimony is holy, and yes permanent, although theirs is broken. They know something of love too. That it is beautiful. And so difficult.

And then there is the rest of the culture that says we should simply fall and always try to feel in love -- a standard so low, it is good simply as a point of contrast.

If it is to last, love will be tested. It will be hard. No model exists for easy love. If marital love is the fullest expression of human generosity that can make of two one flesh, then it comes at the standard of lifelong sacrifice and perseverance. Generosity entails an offering -- one possible even in weakness because it is supplanted by grace. And this is the tipping point between any marriage, and the sacramental reality of holy matrimony.

We must be capable and ready to make a defense for the choice we have made -- the choice to walk up an aisle and ask to be given another in trust before God.

Because the time will undoubtedly come when doubts prevail over early joy, and sorrows rend the bond thought unshakable.

Because it is so easy to break union, and fragile unions break.

Because it is always hard to truly love.

Because all the encouragement one gets these days, is the encouragement for the failure we superficially call liberation -- the deluding encouragement to feel good about failing, which comes from the prior despair that heroic love is ever possible.

Mind you, I'm making no claims to heroism, but had an instructive experience this week.  I was summoned to a meeting over something--entirely truthful, but uncomfortable--that I said at work.  when I got home I told The Wife that I wasn't much worried about the meeting, only about having to tell her if I lost my job.

She said that as long as I was doing the right thing it would be okay and we'd figure things out.

The next day, I was telling someone that's why I love her so much and the other person broke down crying.  I asked what the heck she was doing and she said : "That gives me so much hope."  

The Wife later reminded me that you can take the support of a loving spouse for granted, if you have it, and how lonely people can feel who don't have one.  

Marriage seems like an institution worth defending and saving and we've been doing a crap job of that for quite some time now.

Posted by orrinj at 7:28 AM


Number One With a Bullet : JERRY LEE LEWIS: HIS OWN STORY By Rick Bragg  (DAVID KIRBY, Oct. 24, 2014 WSJ)

Speaking of Mr. Lewis's aversion to introspection, he writes, "remembering, if you are him, is like playing catch with broken glass." Later, Mr. Bragg says that "tragedy in [Mr. Lewis's] private life seemed to rattle and clank behind it all, the way tin cans do when tied to the bumper of a car," a fair assessment when you count up the damage and reckon that he buried two sons, saw six marriages, including one to a 13-year-old cousin, go down in flames, and got in more bar fights and car wrecks than any man has a right to survive. By his own account, he did everything he could to keep the Corvettes rolling off the assembly lines ("wrecked a dozen of 'em," he says).

Born in Ferriday, La., in 1935, Mr. Lewis was lucky in having a mother who adored him and a father who did a couple of stretches in prison but recognized his son's musical precocity. The boy was playing in the yard one day when he saw his father's old truck come up the road with an upright piano in the back; he found out later that he had mortgaged the farm to pay for the instrument. At the age of 9, young Jerry was playing before audiences. Largely self-taught, he didn't merely keep time with his left hand, like most piano players, but used it as deftly as his right, so that it almost seemed as though he was playing two melodies at once.

Still, he needed more. He had been steeped in gospel and country music within the family circle. Those are sturdy tools, but he knew there were depths to be plumbed, so he looked for a way to dig deeper into the human heart and soul. He found what he wanted at Will Haney's Big House, a temple to the blues where men routinely carried pistols and women slapped the wigs off each other. In segregated Ferriday, Mr. Lewis couldn't walk through the front door, though he could and did sneak in.

Everybody knew everybody in the little town, which meant that Will Haney had to pull him out from whatever table he was hiding under and tell him to crawl back through his bedroom window before his parents raised a fuss. He underestimated the Lewis orneriness, though, and it became a common occurrence for Haney's customers to call him over and say, "They's a white boy under my table."

Rock 'n' roll hadn't been invented or at least labeled yet, but by the time he was a teenager and touring the South, Mr. Lewis knew how to please a crowd. "We'd take an old country song . . . ," he says, "and we'd watch the crowd, and if you hit some jagged notes they liked and they stomped the floor, you knew to just keep goin'. We didn't know that was rock and roll." By the time the new music had a name, it was already spreading like fire leaping from tree to tree in a forest of dry pines, but only because the early rockers knew how to sell it. Mr. Bragg says of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (1957), Mr. Lewis's first big hit, that black music had sounded that way for years, but "it took a little touch of hillbilly to make it slide down easy for most white audiences, like a chunk of busted-up peppermint in a glass of home brew."

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


For Want of a King : Many of the Founders, including John Adams, believed that the colonies belonged to the crown. They settled for a president. (ANDREW O'SHAUGHNESSY, Oct. 23, 2014, WSJ)

This twist in the imperial struggle is traditionally dismissed as a tactical maneuver in the fight for independence or as a desperate bid to save the imperial union by colonists who were reluctant to become revolutionaries. It is generally believed that they adopted this position because they had no other means of redress against an uncompromising Parliament, which claimed to have absolute authority in America. But Eric Nelson, a professor of government at Harvard University, believes that most commentators on the subject have imposed their own ideas about what the colonists must have been thinking rather than accepting at face value what they said and wrote. He sees not a shift in strategy in the 1770s but a profound ideological realignment in which the colonists embraced the royalism of the Stuart kings, who had been deposed during Britain's own revolution in 1688.

Following the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, colonial authorities, in Mr. Nelson's telling, began to contemplate the idea of a more powerful and independent monarch at the helm of a re-configured imperial government. The doctor and future spy Edward Bancroft was at the forefront of this movement with a 1769 pamphlet arguing that "Though the King's Prerogative extends, indiscriminately, to all States owing him Allegiance, yet the Legislative Power of each State, if the People have any Share therein, is necessarily confined within the State itself." Alexander Hamilton wrote a more expansive version, "The Farmer Refuted," in 1775, and other important proponents of this royalist ideology included John Adams and two future Supreme Court justices, James Wilson and James Iredell.

Mr. Nelson acknowledges that such ideas about prerogative were for a time overshadowed by Tom Paine 's assault on the mythology of monarchy in "Common Sense" (1776). But they were revived in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 (drafted by Adams), and a broad resurgence of monarchial enthusiasm thereafter culminated in 1787 with the creation of the strong presidency in the "recognizably Royalist constitution for the new United States." Mr. Nelson concedes that the presidency could never possess all the pomp and trappings of kingship but notes that the Constitution assigned "its rechristened chief magistrate far more power than any English monarch had wielded since William of Orange landed at Torbay in 1688." He quotes the historian Mercy Otis Warren complaining in 1788 that the new constitution created a "Republican form of government, founded on the principles of monarchy."

The American presidency has succeeded to precisely the extent it replicates monarchy. The rest is a muddle.

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 AM


Tunisia is showing the Arab world how to nurture democracy (Soumaya Ghannoushi, 25 October 2014, The Guardian)

Tunisia's strongest asset may be its cohesive society. With no sectarian, ethnic, religious or tribal divides, political and ideological differences do not turn into societal divisions, as they do in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. And with a modernisation process that dates back to the 19th century, the country's population is largely urbanised and relatively well educated, with a broad middle class and a vibrant civil society.

If the armies of Egypt and Tunisia were widely celebrated as "guardians of the revolution" after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the roles each has played since could not have been more different. While the former proceeded to seize power and rule with an iron fist, the latter has quietly retreated to its barracks. This was not merely accidental, but stems from the radically divergent functions the two military institutions have exercised through their countries' recent history.

Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's post-independence president, was highly suspicious of the army and anxious to prevent a repetition of the coups staged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Ba'ath party in Syria and Iraq. Kept to its barracks, the Tunisian army's role was, therefore, confined to protecting the country's rather quiet borders, as far away from politics as possible. Bourguiba's authoritarian rule rested on a mixture of national liberation legitimacy, personal charisma, and doses of police repression. The last of these was to deepen with Ben Ali's rule, which turned Tunisia into a virtual police state.

Government in Tunisia was thus left to the politicians, free from the overbearing presence of military men. Without their omnipresent shadow, politics has been able to evolve spontaneously amid the post-revolution uncertainty.

Break Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon up into their constituent parts and get rid of their militaries--you only need to do the latter for Egypt--and the rest follows its natural Darwinian path.

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 AM


The Rise of the Disrupters (IRWIN M. STELZER, 10/25/14, Weekly Standard)

So what is the disrupters' next target? They need an industry with a lot of investment sunk in the ground, dominated by a few companies made lethargic by years of monopoly power, able to use bundle-pricing to protect their shoddiest and least popular products by tying them to popular ones, and a long history of abusing customers with "For English, dial 1; for billing information, dial 2; for anything else dial 3, and hold on for an hour or so of awful canned music until a person located where English is rarely spoken comes to the telephone."

The cable industry fits that description. According to David Carr, writing in the New York Times, last week  "television staged a jailbreak....Netflix pointed a way forward by not only establishing that programming could be reliably delivered over the web, but showing that customers were more than ready to make the leap." No longer does your friendly cable company provide virtually the only path by which what is called "content" can enter your home. Netflix has changed the game in two ways. First, Mark Cuban, an investor in sports (the Dallas Mavericks among others) and other entertainment ventures points out, "Very little content is created in the U.S. without first talking to Netflix," which is now producing feature films and ending the day when old-line film studios could set the dates when their content would be released ("clearances" in the jargon of the trade) to the likes of Netflix only after being exhibited in first-run theaters.

Second, Netflix and similar disrupters have so emboldened thousands of so-called cord-cutters that cable and satellite providers have decided they would rather give in than follow the path to oblivion taken by other disrupted industries. Last week HBO ($15) and CBS ($6) -- Disney's ESPN will soon follow by offering basketball games on a choose-one basis -- announced plans to sell stand-alone streaming services. No cable subscription (circa $80 per month) required. Cable companies' ability to force consumers to pay for hundreds of unwanted channels in order to get the far fewer shows that interest them is on the wane. A la carte is the new plat du jour. It is a bit early to announce the end of the cable industry as we have known it, but as Carr points out, "Change comes very slowly, but then happens all at once. This is the all-at-once-part." One thing is certain. The closer we get to full à la carte service, the closer we come to the day when sports fans will have to bear the full cost of the cable companies' frantic bidding for rights to broadcast sporting events. My guess is that many sports fans will find the price of that television ticket too high, that the consequences will be lower bids for rights, lower salaries for players, cheaper tickets for fans attending live events.

Posted by orrinj at 7:07 AM


For The Midterm Elections, A Book On 'What It Takes' To Win (MICHAEL SCHAUB, October 24, 2014, NPR)

Even in its best moments, running for office is a roller coaster. Who are these people who are willing to put themselves and their families through constant scrutiny by the press, blistering attacks from their opponents, and hateful comments from Internet trolls?

There's no easy answer to that question, but in his book What It Takes, the late Richard Ben Cramer came closer to finding out than just about anybody before or since. Cramer followed the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidency in 1988, and chronicled what it was like for politicians to run the cruel and unforgiving gauntlet that is the American election system. Cramer writes, "I wanted to know enough about these people to see ... once they decided to run, and marched (or slid, or flung themselves headlong) into this semi-rational, all-consuming quest ... what happened to those lives ... to the lives they shared? What happened to their idea of themselves?"

Calling What It Takes exhaustive would be a massive understatement. The book is over 1,000 pages long, and Cramer takes a hard look at what made these presidential hopefuls tick. Although the election was 26 years ago, there are, of course, familiar faces. There's George H. W. Bush, whose grandson George P. Bush is in the running for Texas Land Commissioner this November. And there's Joe Biden, just as passionate and glad-handing in 1988 as he is today.

Cramer, who died last year, was more of a gonzo reporter than a Beltway pundit, and his writing style had echoes of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. That's part of what makes What It Takes so illuminating -- he focused on the people behind the public personas.

At the moment when the campaign season is reaching its lowest ebb (can I just watch sports on tv without hearing how awful everyone running for office is at every commercial break?), it's worth reminding ourselves what a glorious process it is and how much these candidates go through just to get an opportunity to serve us.

Posted by orrinj at 7:04 AM


Obama and the Kurds: A Frigid Marriage (Jonathan Dworkin, 10/23/14, Washington Monthly)

In no area is this confusion more evident than our relations with the Kurds. Obama has gone through enormous trouble to create a coalition that targets ISIS in Syria, but until last week he failed to include the one group in that country that has withstood ISIS on the battlefield. That would be the YPG, a Kurdish militia that took over significant territory in three northern cantons of Syria after Bashar Assad's authority crumbled. It wasn't just the YPG. It was also the YPJ, a militia of Kurdish women who fight alongside the men. The Syrian Kurds, much like their counterparts in Iraq, have built a secular system in their area. They empower women, and they shelter thousands of Syria's minorities. It was the Syrian Kurds who crossed the Iraqi frontier and rescued the Yezidi minority on Mount Sinjar.

Given all the unsavory actors in Obama's Syria coalition, why the long delay in including the relatively tolerant Kurds? The answer takes us back to Obama's confused priorities. The Kurdish militias are loosely affiliated with the PKK, a group of Kurds in Turkey who have been placed on the US terrorism list. There's no evidence that Syrian Kurds have targeted civilians (just the opposite in fact), and the PKK itself is on the list because the Turkish government finds it convenient to lump separatists with terrorists. But that nuance is lost on everyone. The PKK are paper terrorists, therefore the Syrian Kurds were off limits.

Putting aside the problematic nature of using the terrorism list as a political cudgel, it's worth noting that even the Turks were not this fanatical - they invited the Syrian Kurdish leader to Ankara for talks. This put Obama in the absurd position of being more Turkish than the Turks. The result is that even as Obama launched a new American air war in the Middle East, he ruled out in advance dealing with the one liberal faction in the country he was bombing.

You're not a terrorist if we agree with you.

Posted by orrinj at 6:59 AM


The 'Colorado Model' Goes Thud (KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL, Oct. 23, 2014, WSJ)

The party's biggest mistake was thinking its recent electoral victories--based largely on a superior campaign game--translated into a mandate for liberal governance. Colorado long has been, and remains, a pragmatic state. It's a place that for decades gave Republicans the state legislature and Democrats the governor's mansion. It loves its political independents, folks like former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who it elected in 1992 as a Democrat and re-elected in 1998 by an even bigger margin as a Republican.

No surprise, the state hasn't appreciated Mr. Obama's ideological agenda. Some 22,000 residents just found out they're losing health insurance; some 200,000 more face cancellations next year. Residents are worried about Ebola and the terror threat, frustrated by falling incomes, disturbed by Washington scandals. The president's approval rating--in supposedly liberal-ascendant Colorado--is 40%.

Mr. Udall ran as an independent yet says he'd vote for ObamaCare again. He claims to be a "best of the above" energy guy, but he refused to endorse the popular Keystone XL pipeline and only belatedly came out against anti-fracking ballot initiatives that have crippled a new mainstay of the Colorado economy. Asked at a recent debate to name a single Obama policy he opposes, he couldn't muster a one. His approval rating, 37%, is even lower than Mr. Obama's.

Mr. Hickenlooper has magnified the liberal-governance theme. The so-called moderate signed strict gun-control measures in 2013, controversial enough to result in the recall of two Democratic state senators. The governor's decision to ignore Colorado's death penalty law and grant a "reprieve" to a quadruple-murderer has similarly annoyed voters.

Democrats here have also underestimated the degree to which past Republican incompetence played into their victories. The Colorado GOP in recent years has been riven by divisions and fielded mediocre candidates. That changed this year with Mr. Gardner.

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 AM


GOP Gains in Key Senate Races as Gender Gap Narrows (JANET HOOK, Oct. 23, 2014, WSJ)

In a warning flag for Democrats, recent polls suggest the party is failing to draw enough support from women in three key Senate races--in Iowa, Arkansas and Colorado--to offset the strong backing that men are giving to Republicans.

Surveys this week in Arkansas and Colorado for the first time also showed the GOP candidates pulling even or ahead of Democrats among women voters, threatening to close the gender gap that has been a cornerstone of Democratic electoral strategy for decades.

Posted by orrinj at 6:41 AM


A blue light that might save the world (Cosmos, 10/25/14, Cathal O'Connell)

The blue LED light was finally created in the early 1990s by the three Nobel-winning Japanese physicists who took the painstaking route of growing gallium nitride crystals to do the job.

Since then LEDs have been associated with state-of-the art devices like Blu-ray DVDs, smart-phone screens and TV screens. The intensity of tiny red, green and blue LED pixels can be adjusted to produce sharp images of any colour.  But the real revolution is still to come, from the simple lighting of households, offices and streets.

According to the International Energy Agency 19% of all global electricity is used for lighting. The incandescent bulbs developed by Edison in 1879 run hot, wasting most of the electricity pumped into them. The fluorescent tubes that criss-cross the ceilings of today's offices are about five times more efficient than incandescents. Today's commercially available white LEDs have the same efficiency as fluorescents, but, while fluorescent technology has plateaued, LEDs just keep getting better and better. They're expected to both double in efficiency and halve in price over the next 15 years. Added to this they have a useful lifetime of over 50,000 hours, meaning they need to be changed less than once a decade.

Posted by orrinj at 6:33 AM


GOP changes tune on cutting Social Security with elections on the line (Lori Montgomery October 23, 2014, Washington Post)

Older voters typically dominate the electorate in non-presidential years, so the resort to Social Security as an issue in the Nov. 4 midterms is hardly surprising. But what has drawn attention - and charges of hypocrisy - is the decision by Republican groups to attack Democrats for supporting conservative ideas in a proposed "grand bargain" on the budget drafted by Democrat Erskine Bowles and former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming.

Once venerated in both parties as a good-faith proposal, the Bowles-Simpson plan calls for political compromise to rein in the $17.9 trillion national debt, which was dangerously elevated by the recent recession. Republicans would raise taxes, the theory goes, in exchange for Democrats cutting health and retirement spending. Among its proposals: trim Social Security benefits for well-off seniors, raise the retirement age to 69 by 2075 and adopt the new inflation measure, known as the chained Consumer Price Index, or chained CPI.

Both Crossroads GPS and NRCC, the party's campaign arm for House races, have cited Democrats' support for Bowles-Simpson as the basis of their charges on Social Security, though many Republicans -- including Rove -- have criticized President Obama for failing to support the Bowles-Simpson package.

A spokesman for Crossroads GPS declined to comment. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:28 AM


Tobacco Farmers Lose Longtime Safety Net (EMILY MCCORD, October 24, 2014, NPR)

Tobacco growers are about to face a completely free market. This month, they'll receive their last checks from a government program meant to ease them out of a Depression-era tobacco-price-fixing system. [...]

The safety net is the Transitional Tobacco Payment Program, also known as the buyout. Since the 1930s, the government regulated the tobacco market with a quota system. It limited how much a farmer could grow to control supply and demand, and farmers profited. That ended in 2004 with the $9.6 billion buyout program that paid growers yearly sums to help them adapt to the free market.

October 24, 2014

Posted by Glenn Dryfoos at 9:45 AM

All That Jazz #6

Jimmy Smith

The Sermon and House Party

Jimmy Smith Quartet 1957 ~ 'S Wonderful - 

Jimmy Smith - The Sermon (1964) -

As with many art forms, different styles of jazz have been given different labels (Dixieland/traditional, swing, bop, fusion, etc.).  While arguments about exactly what constitutes a given category or whether a certain recording or musician qualifies for that label are fairly useless in my view, these names do provide a useful shorthand for discussing the music.  So, with that, today we consider some of the masters of the style known as "hard bop."  Hard bop grew out of the bebop movement of the 1940's, which expanded the harmonic and rhythmic boundaries of jazz beyond its standing as pop/dance music and into the territory of being an art/concert music (while still retaining many elements of its popular appeal).  Speaking very generally, hard bop retained the rhythms, harmonies and technical virtuosity of bop, but leavened it by moderating tempos (bop tunes were often played extremely fast or extremely slow...to discourage dancing and encourage listening) and adding an obvious blues/funk/gospel feel.  Hard bop is most closely associated with the recordings of the Blue Note label in the 50's and 60's, and its leading voices included pianist/composer Horace Silver, trumpeter Clifford Brown and some of the musicians on today's featured CD's.

I originally intended to write about a CD I bought many years ago entitled "The Sermon" which features recordings made over 2 sessions (with some differences in personnel) in August 1957 and February 1958.  But, in looking for an amazon.com or iTunes link to that CD, I found that these tunes have now been repackaged in numerous combinations, but all of the songs I will write about can now be found by purchasing the CD's linked above (called "The Sermon" and "House Party").  (For this piece, I will refer to the tracks as they appear on my version of the CD, which is essentially the order in which they were recorded). 

Although Count Basie and others had dabbled with the organ as a jazz voice, Jimmy Smith, the leader on these sessions, was the first master soloist on the instrument and the influence for all who followed (Jack McDuff, Lonnie Smith, Charles Earland, Joey DeFrancesco, etc.).

Rather than a typical blowing session where all the horns play the head (melody) and take turns soloing, the album starts with features for each horn.  Lee Morgan (one of the avatars of hard bop, who later had a surprising Top 40 hit with The Sidewinder kicks things off with a wonderfully swinging and soulful take on the Gershwins' "S'Wonderful."  For me, his pure tone and relaxed-yet-buoyant fluency is jazz at its best.   Showcases for two other hard bop stars follow, trombonist Curtis Fuller on "Blue Room" and alto sax Lou Donaldson on the ballad "Lover Man." 

The first two tunes from the February 1958 date, Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and "Au Privave," have more of a jam session feel, as the horns (with Tina Brooks, tenor sax, replacing Fuller) join together on the head before the soloing starts.  Two other hard bop greats join here, guitarist Kenny Burrell and legendary drummer Art Blakey (whose Jazz Messenger groups were the most famous training ground/finishing school in jazz).   Blakey's distinctive power and crackle are most evident on "Confirmation" which also features a beautiful solo from Burrell that renders meaningless any line between bop and hard bop.   (Or between bop and swing for that matter...Burrell plays with such melodic grace and balance that, like Benny Carter or Milt Jackson, he transcends genre and seems to fit within any setting.)  Morgan then takes another star turn on "Flamingo" before the session ends with a laid back blues, "The Sermon," about as perfect an example of the hard bop genre as you will find with great solos from all. 

Throughout all of these cuts, Jimmy Smith provides colorful and rhythmic support with his comping (the chords that a keyboardist plays under a solo), plays spectacular solos (using the stops of the Hammond B-3 to provide a variety of tonal color, from purrs to growls) and lays down solid bass lines (with his feet!).

October 23, 2014

Posted by orrinj at 6:53 PM


RGA puts additional $1 million into Wisconsin ad buys as Walker frets (Robert Costa, October 23, 2014, Washington Post)

The Republican Governors Association has purchased more than $1 million in additional television advertising time in Wisconsin to boost embattled Gov. Scott Walker, who is locked in a close race against Democrat Mary Burke.

Posted by orrinj at 6:42 PM


Obama's White House Can't Take a Joke (Stephen L. Carter, 10/23/14, Bloomberg View)

According to news articles, Obama gave the crowd this report on his visit to his pre-White House home: "Because Michelle and I and the kids, we left so quickly that there's still junk on my desk, including some unpaid bills. I think eventually they got paid -- but they're sort of stacked up. And messages, newspapers and all kinds of stuff."

The official transcript, issued by the White House press office, read this way: "We left so quickly that there's still junk on my desk, including some -- newspapers and all kinds of stuff." A later "corrected" transcript described the remark about unpaid bills -- heard clearly by more than one reporter present -- as inaudible.

To which one wants to say: seriously?

The president was obviously telling a joke, and the joke works pretty well. The administration has struggled to find a way to demonstrate Obama's sympathy with the struggles of the middle class, and the joke does at least a little to soften the president's edges at a time when many Americans report significant financial stress.

So why the deletion? The claim that the tape is inaudible barely passes the giggle test. My suspicion -- impossible to prove -- is that the decision was made by a panicky White House political team so worried about nasty ads from their opponents that they wound up brushing away the very warmth they desperately wanted their boss to convey.

Posted by orrinj at 6:40 PM


Parliament to 'accept and embrace' wearing of kirpan, sergeant-at-arms explains (JANE TABER, 6/02/11, The Globe and Mail)

Mr. Vickers, 54, is the sergeant-at-arms in the Commons - perhaps familiar to some Canadians as the tall man in black carrying the mace into the House. Appointed in 2006, he oversees the security of the parliamentary precinct and sits quietly in his seat in the chamber when the Commons is in session. [...]

Last winter, while the Quebec National Assembly banned the kirpan, Mr. Vickers moved to ensure that the ceremonial dagger be allowed in the Commons despite a Bloc Québécois motion calling for it to be prohibited.

For that, the World Sikh Organization of Canada paid tribute to him at a dinner in Ottawa. And there, Mr. Vickers, who had served for 29 years as an RCMP officer, explained in a moving speech his view of the country and what led to his decision.

He noted that as a young boy growing up in Miramichi, N.B., he saw his father invite home students from developing countries, who were studying about co-operatives at the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

Sitting around the dining room table and listening to their stories, he said, he learned to respect the culture and dignity of others.

"I see your wearing of the kirpan, especially in our Parliamentary buildings, as exactly that, respecting your dignity," he told the WSO members. "But just as the kirpan issue came before us last winter, we are reminded how vigilant we must be to not only defend but promote the practices, cultures and religions of all peoples."

Mr. Vickers said that he doesn't like the word "tolerance" or the phrase "a tolerant society." "I am going to tolerate you wearing the kirpan within the Parliamentary Precinct. No. As head of security, I am going to accept and embrace your symbol of faith within the Parliamentary Precinct," he said.

Posted by orrinj at 6:29 PM


How Foodies Were Duped Into Thinking McDonald's Was High-End Food (MARIA GODOY, October 23, 2014, NPR)

In the video, two Dutch pranksters sneak into a large food-industry expo in Houten, The Netherlands. (The video doesn't name the event.) There, the duo ask exhibitors and attendees to sample their "new, organic alternative to fast food" from their "high-end restaurant." In reality, they are serving up cut-up pieces of what appears to be McDonald's fare including muffins, burgers and nuggets.

Presented with bite-size samples attractively arranged on a platter with serving toothpicks, the patsies in this little experiment react with effusive praise. (While the pranksters are clearly gleeful about duping people whom they describe as culinary or organic "experts," we don't really know who they are.)

"The taste is very rich," one person tells the fake restaurateurs, who go by Sacha and Cedrique and work for Lifehunters.TV, an outfit that specializes in creating viral content.

"It's definitely a lot tastier than McDonald's. You can just tell this is a lot more pure," offers another taste-tester.

"It rolls around the tongue nicely; if it were wine, I'd say it's fine," says a third.

Posted by orrinj at 6:10 PM


The case for Northern devolution (PAUL SALVESON, 22 October 2014, OpenDemocracy)

It's widely recognised that England is a highly centralised nation with power and resources increasingly concentrated on London and the south-east. The historic 'north-south' divide is getting bigger and virtually every index of deprivation shows the North (Yorkshire and the Humber; North-West and North-East) becoming poorer in comparison to the South-East. The Scottish referendum campaign has forced the political establishment to accept further devolution for Scotland and the 'English Question' - how to re-balance England itself so London and the South-east becomes less dominant - has shot up the agenda. The response from the political establishment has been to avoid creating any new directly-elected bodies but instead to devolve some powers and resources to 'combined authorities' in Northern city regions. Some of these already exist, for example in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. They bring together the local authorities in their respective areas, with the council leaders forming a leadership group. They have growing budgets covering a range of sectors, including transport and economic development. While it could be argued these are a pragmatic response to existing needs, their big problem is the lack of accountability. Indirectly-elected bodies such as these give greater powers to officers and effectively remove any semblance of popular participation. Further, almost by definition, 'city regions' have an excessive focus on the main city conurbations and less emphasis on the more peripheral urban centres and rural areas.

The alternative is 'democratic devolution' to the regions, with elected assemblies having similar powers to Wales and Scotland. They should be elected by PR to allow a better balance between town, city and rural hinterland. It has been suggested that this merely creates 'another tier of bureaucracy' but surely regionalisation should be an opportunity to radically reduce the size of the central civil service, with fewer MPs at Westminster. Further, it should involve a fundamental re-organisation of the dogs' dinner that is English local government, with smaller and more accountable local authorities which reflect people's local identities.

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 PM


Landslide Landrieu (John Dickerson, 10/23/14, Slate)

Landrieu has jokingly referred to herself as "Landslide Landrieu," because she has faced so many close races. She recounted that history to the audience to remind them that every vote counts. "I stepped up to run for the Senate, and we beat--all of us in this room--we beat Woody Jenkins by 5,778 votes out of 1.7 million votes cast," she said, referring to her conservative Republican opponent. "Ladies, that is 1.2 votes per precinct. You sent me there, and let me tell you what happened just a few years late: Katrina and Rita slammed in to South Louisiana and sent a million people homeless, including half of my family and families in here, who never thought they'd experience homelessness in their life. And you know who was in that seat when that happened? Think about the difference between Mary Landrieu--and I know I have my flaws and my weaknesses--but think about having to go to Woody Jenkins to ask Woody Jenkins to help New Orleans. Baton Rouge, do you have any concept the difference it made? And I made the difference because I was there, but you made the difference by putting me there."
Landrieu's platform of seniority, Social Security, and sandbags is the strongest bulwark of any being erected by Democratic incumbents.

At the next event, as local politicians and labor leaders praised Landrieu to a crowd gathered to hear Bill Clinton, Hurricane Katrina came up again and again. "When the hurricane hit and she had to battle everybody, she stood up and showed up and fought and she delivered," said her younger brother, Mitch Landrieu, the popular mayor of New Orleans. "New Orleans, the whole southern part of Louisiana, would not be where it is today if she had not fought."

...than the Landrieu family?

Posted by orrinj at 5:19 PM


Low Inflation, Flatter COLA: Social Security Benefits to Get 1.7% Bump (Eric Morath, Josh Mitchell, October 22, 2014, Dow Jones Newswires)

Tens of millions of elderly and disabled Americans will see a small bump in their government payments next year, another reflection of a sluggish economic recovery that has kept inflation low.

The Social Security Administration on Wednesday announced a 1.7% annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for the nearly 64 million Americans who receive federal retirement or disability benefits. The increase would result in about a $22-a-month increase for the average retiree. Increases have been between 1.5% and 1.7% for three straight years.

Posted by orrinj at 5:17 PM


The future is Filipino (Philip Jenkins, 10/22/14, Christian Century)

When Pope Francis visits the Philip­pines in January, we will undoubtedly hear a great deal about that country's importance on the global religious scene. Partly that's a matter of raw numbers. Al­ready one of the world's three largest Catholic nations, it may by some measures lead the pack within a quarter century or so. By 2050, there could be 100 million Catholic Filipinos.

The church also has a charismatic leader in Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila. Only 57, he features prominently in speculation about the next papal election, whenever that might occur. If Tagle is not chosen, it is likely that some Filipino will be­come the first nonwhite pope since the early Middle Ages.

John Allen, the superbly informed expert on all things Catholic, rightly stresses the central role of the Philippines in the Catholic future. He also warns that the Philippine experience belies any West­ern hopes that culture wars and church-state conflicts might fade in consequence of rapid social change. The Philippine church is powerful and politically influential, priding itself on its heroic role against the Marcos dictatorship of the 1980s. In recent years, the Philippine hierarchy has been consistently at war with the national government over official attempts to expand access to contraception and over sex education in the schools. Threats of excommunication have been flying. Contraception is still a primary battlefield of cultural politics; same-sex marriage is barely even discussed.

Posted by orrinj at 5:08 PM


Our Neanderthal Complex : What if our ancient relatives did "human" better? (LYDIA PYNE, OCTOBER 16, 2014, Nautilus)

Just this year, researchers offered a series of tantalizingly detailed new insights about Neanderthal culture and Pleistocene lifestyles. Paleo-geneticists have lit up the public imagination with descriptions of the genetic overlap between modern humans and Neanderthals.7 Excavations at Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar have suggested that Neanderthals exploited rock pigeon populations8 for food and produced etched cave art9 around 39,000 years ago. Clive Finlayson, the director of the Heritage Division of the Gibraltar Museum and Gorham Cave researcher, noted in an interview in Nature, "What is clear is that it [the etched cave art] is abstract, it's deliberate, and it speaks to their cognition in a way that brings Neanderthals, once again, closer to us."

The new findings have ushered a transformation of the Neanderthal from a knuckle-dragging savage rightfully defeated in an evolutionary constant, to a distant cousin that holds clues to our identity. Where museums used to emphasize their primitive and brutal nature, modern exhibits evoke a feeling of belonging. "For Neanderthals, especially in museum exhibits, there's a sense of wanting to connect to them since they are so close to us," says Linda Kim, an art historian specializing in museum exhibits. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:03 PM


Minimum Wage Backfire (WSJ, Oct. 22, 2014)

The McDonald's earnings report on Tuesday gave a hint at how the fast-food chain really plans to respond to its wage and profit pressure--automate. As many contributors to these pages have warned, forcing businesses to pay people out of proportion to the profits they generate will provide those businesses with a greater incentive to replace employees with machines.

By the third quarter of next year, McDonald's plans to introduce new technology in some markets "to make it easier for customers to order and pay for food digitally and to give people the ability to customize their orders," reports the Journal. Mr. Thompson, the CEO, said Tuesday that customers "want to personalize their meals" and "to enjoy eating in a contemporary, inviting atmosphere. And they want choices in how they order, choices in what they order and how they're served."

We're always told that minmum wage earners particularly deserve our help because their jobs suck so bad.  So replacing those employees with machines is an act of human liberation, not a cause for concern.

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