Clapper’s Clampdown

Apr 23 2014 @ 5:14pm

Jack Shafer criticizes the gag order (seen above) that James Clapper recently placed on the entire intel community:

The nation’s top spy has prohibited all of his spies from talking with reporters about “intelligence-related information” unless officially authorized to speak. … Directive 119 increases the insularity of the national security state, making the public less safe, not more. Until this directive was issued, intelligence community employees could provide subtext and context for the stories produced by the national security press without breaking the law. Starting now, every news story about the national security establishment that rates disfavor with the national security establishment — no matter how innocuous — will rate a full-bore investigation of sources by authorities.

Tina Nguyen has more on how far the order extends:

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Even Atheists Stereotype Atheists

Apr 23 2014 @ 4:44pm

Theo Hobsons wonders if atheists can offer a satisfying approach to ethics, arguing that “when God is rejected, the stakes are gulpingly high; the entire moral tradition of the West is put in question.” That dubious line of reasoning brings to mind a study Tom Jacobs recently flagged, which found that “the way Americans view non-believers remains extremely negative”:

After reading a description of someone committing an immoral act, participants in five experiments “readily and intuitively assumed that the person was an atheist,” University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais reports in the online journal PLoS One. “Even atheist participants judged immoral acts as more representative of atheists than of other groups.”

The findings suggest our instinctive belief that moral behavior is dependent upon God—as ethical arbiter and/or assigner of divine punishment—creates a belief system strong enough to override evidence to the contrary. It leads people many to look at non-believers and reflexively assume the worst.

Mental Health Break

Apr 23 2014 @ 4:20pm

The Tale of the Plump Bird from sakiiyori on Vimeo.

Slate Wants You To Subscribe

Apr 23 2014 @ 4:00pm

My old friend and former colleague in the intern pit, Jake Weisberg, sent out an email the other day. He was pitching Slate‘s new subscription push: Slate+. But the reason the email caught my eye was the following paragraph:

We face one major impediment to future success: we’re too dependent on advertising. Don’t get me wrong — we love our sponsors. But we’ve long recognized that we’d be a healthier and more secure magazine if — like many of our favorite ancestors in the print world — we got a meaningful share of our revenue from readers as well as advertisers. The catch for Slate is that we don’t want to put up a paywall, which would shrink our big audience and make the site more of a hassle to access.

One other option would be a pay-meter, like the Dish’s, but they’re going the TPM route of a VIP membership of $50 a year or $5 a month, with some exclusive features for subscribers:

You’ll get Slate articles without pagination, Slate podcasts without ads, first-crack at tickets and discounts to our many live events, a special Members-only section of the site with extra content, privileged status for your comments, and more.

My own view is that pay-meters for repeat readers is a better way to do this. Yes, they do reduce traffic a bit. Our unique visitors now average around 800,000 a month compared with around a million with no meter. But we still have surges. Last October we were back up at 1.2 Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 12.52.37 PMmillion and in February, more than 2 million unique visitors. My take-away is that the immense benefits of close to 30,000 subscribers, and freedom from intense advertizing pressure, far outweigh any minor downsides in pageviews. But every site is different, and what works here may not work for Slate.

And Jake’s point about being too dependent on advertising is the critical one. Editors who only have to please advertisers will make different choices than those who have to please advertisers and subscribers. If you want to assign one reason for the scourge of sponsored content, it is that when you have no source of income except ads, the advertisers have you over a barrel. So what Jake is proposing – and what Josh at TPM has also done (yes, I know their backing of sponsored content messes things up) – is the only real way to get out of these woods.

I guess we’re in some competition. But I think the general benefits to online journalism of a more robust subscription model are enormous and vital. And the one thing you can actually do to stop the rot is to subscribe to the sites you love and believe in. So, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the Dish here, to TPM here, and to Slate here. It matters.

Kidnapped In Slovyansk

Apr 23 2014 @ 3:40pm

Pro-Russian forces in the eastern Ukrainian city have abducted American reporter Simon Ostrovsky (whose latest Vice dispatch from Slovyansk is above):

Ostrovsky, a veteran reporter for a number of outlets, had been filing regular video reports from the region for Vice, including the one above on Ukrainian forces’ botched attempts to retake Slovyansk, which was posted on Sunday. This just the latest is a series of attacks on the press by pro-Russian forces in the area, including the arrest of journalist and activist Irma Krat. [Ostrovsky's cameraman Frederick] Paxton himself was beaten by a pro-Russian crowd last week. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple cases of journalists being “assaulted, detained, or obstructed from reporting” in Russian-controlled Crimea.

It seems the insurgents have no plans to release him anytime soon:

“He’s with us. He’s fine,” [the group's spokeswoman] Stella Khorosheva told The Associated Press, adding, “(We) need to be careful because this is not the first time we’re dealing with spies.” Khorosheva also told The Daily Beast that Ostrovsky is being held according to the “laws of war” because “he was not reporting in a correct way.”

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John Cassidy worries that yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling in Schuette will have widespread consequences:

Without saying so explicitly, [the ruling] appeared to give its approval to ballot initiatives designed to roll back affirmative action in other areas as well, such as hiring employees, awarding contracts—and ending racial segregation. In effect—and, in the case of the Court’s conservatives, surely in intention, too—the justices on the majority suggested that if voters in individual states want to throw out laws designed to counter America’s long history of racial discrimination, that’s fine by them, and perfectly constitutional.

Bazelon is disturbed by what she sees as Roberts’ blindness to the enduring problem of racism in America:

I still think there is a difference between a local ordinance that bans busing or fair housing, which aim for equal treatment, and a ballot initiative that takes away a preference based on race. That’s how I made my peace with the outcome today. But I had my doubts when I got to a telling exchange between Roberts and Sotomayor. It’s over the basic underlying question that is nowhere resolved in this case: Whether affirmative action—or any awareness of race—is still needed or valid. …

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Dirty Corn

Apr 23 2014 @ 3:02pm


Corn stover, or the stuff left over when a corn crop is harvested, has become a popular source of biofuel, partly because it doesn’t affect the food supply the way that corn or sugar-based ethanol does. Unfortunately, this type of fuel may actually have a bigger carbon footprint than gasoline:

It used to be that the stalks, leaves, and detrital cobs would be left on fields to prevent soil erosion and to allow the next crop to feast on the organic goodness of its late brethren. Increasingly, though, these leftovers are being sent to cellulosic ethanol biorefineries. Millions of gallons of biofuels are expected to be produced from such waste this year — a figure could rise to more than 10 billion gallons in 2022 to satisfy federal requirements.

But a new study suggests this approach may be worse for the climate, at least in the short term, than drilling for oil and burning the refined gasoline. The benefits of cellulosic biofuel made from corn waste improve over the longer term, but the study, published online Sunday in Nature Climate Change, suggests that the fuel could never hit the benchmark set in the 2007 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires that cellulosic ethanol be 60 percent better for the climate than traditional gasoline.

Michael Byrne explains what the problem is:

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The View From Your Window

Apr 23 2014 @ 2:42pm


San Francisco, California, 12.07 pm

Chris Hayes compares the fight against fossil fuels to the abolitionist movement. He states plainly that “there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices.” But he sees economic parallels:

[I]n the decades before the Civil War, the economic value of slavery explodes. It becomes the central economic institution and source of wealth for a region experiencing a boom that succeeded in raising per capita income and concentrating wealth ever more tightly in the hands of the Southern planter class. During this same period, the rhetoric of the planter class evolves from an ambivalence about slavery to a full-throated, aggressive celebration of it. As slavery becomes more valuable, the slave states find ever more fulsome ways of praising, justifying and celebrating it. Slavery increasingly moves from an economic institution to a cultural one; it becomes a matter of identity, of symbolism—indeed, in the hands of the most monstrously adept apologists, a thing of beauty.

And yet, at the very same time, casting a shadow over it all is the growing power of the abolition movement in the North and the dawning awareness that any day might be slavery’s last. So that, on the eve of the war, slavery had never been more lucrative or more threatened. That also happens to be true of fossil fuel extraction today. …

[T]he parallel I want to highlight is between the opponents of slavery and the opponents of fossil fuels. Because the abolitionists were ultimately successful, it’s all too easy to lose sight of just how radical their demand was at the time: that some of the wealthiest people in the country would have to give up their wealth. That liquidation of private wealth is the only precedent for what today’s climate justice movement is rightly demanding: that trillions of dollars of fossil fuel stay in the ground. It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. They should also recognize that, like the abolitionists of yore, their task may be as much instigation and disruption as it is persuasion.

He goes on to argue that avoiding “planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.” Barro sees “reason for somewhat less despair than Mr. Hayes shows, because there are crucial political and economic differences between abolition and carbon limitations”:

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A timely reminder of how old the struggle for marriage equality really is in the US:

And this is how revolutions begin:

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The debate over Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century continues to rage throughout the blogosphere. Weissmann thinks it will be the millennials’ liberal manifesto:

Conservatives have long had an easy framework for their economic ideas: The free market cures all. Liberals, instead of nebulously arguing that they’re fighting for the middle class, now have a touchstone that clearly argues they’re fighting against the otherwise inevitable rise of the Hiltons.

Capital will change the political conversation in a more subtle way as well, by focusing it on wealth, not income. Discussions about income can become very muddy, in part because Americans don’t like to begrudge a well-earned payday, and in part because it can be tricky to decide what should count as income. If you start adding health insurance and government transfers such as food stamps into the equation, as some do, the top 1 percent don’t dominate quite so severely.

Wealth is a different story. Americans don’t like the idea of aristocrats—there’s a reason campaigning politicians bring up family farms and steel mills, not Shelter Island vacation homes, when they run for office. Moreover, you can’t save food stamps or a health plan, and because wealth only includes what you can save, it’s a measure of who wins in the economy over the long term.

Robert M. Solow supports Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax:

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Why Rand Paul Matters

Apr 23 2014 @ 1:23pm

David Corn, who dug up the video footage above, notes:

These days, Paul, who is stuck in a civil war within the GOP over foreign policy issues, is trying to Reaganize himself and demonstrate that he’s not outside the Republican mainstream. (His Senate office did not respond to requests for comment.) But not long ago, Reagan was a foil for Paul, who routinely pointed out that the GOP’s most revered figure actually had been a letdown. It’s no surprise that denigrating Ronald Reagan—and commending Jimmy Carter—is no longer common for Paul. Such libertarian straight talk would hardly help him become one of the successors to the last Republican president who retains heroic stature within the party Paul wants to win over.

For me, though, these clips make Paul’s candidacy more appealing, not less. What the GOP needs is an honest, stringent account of how it has ended up where it is – a party that has piled on more debt than was once thought imaginable and until recently, has done nothing much to curtail federal spending. Reagan was a great president in many ways, as Paul says explicitly in these clips.

But Reagan introduced something truly poisonous into American conservatism.

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Meep Meep Watch In Foreign Policy

Apr 23 2014 @ 12:55pm

The neocons don’t want you to notice, but Obama’s attempt to disarm both Syria and Iran of WMDs is actually on track. On Syria, I remember being on the AC360 show last fall, when the overwhelming consensus was that Obama had been duped, that his pivot in asking Putin to enforce the removal of WMDs from Syria was a humiliation, and that Assad would never, ever give up any WMDs. Fast forward to now:

With its latest deadline days away, Syria is close to eliminating its stockpile of chemical weapons, monitors said Tuesday, an improbable accomplishment in the midst of civil war that is likely to diminish further the possibility of international intervention.

After a slow start that prompted U.S. accusations of stalling, the government of President Bashar Assad has shipped almost 90% of its chemical weapons materials out of the country, raising hope that it can finish the job by Sunday. A United Nations plan that averted punitive U.S. airstrikes last year sets June 30 as the deadline for all of Syria’s chemical weapons materials to be destroyed. But the first and hardest task has been shipping it out of the country through the Mediterranean port of Latakia…

The shipment Tuesday means that 86.5% of its toxic weapons material has been removed, according to a statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based group overseeing the destruction of the stockpile. That includes 88.7% of the 700 metric tons of the most toxic chemicals, among them mustard gas and precursor materials for the nerve agents sarin and VX.

Then we come to the much more important interim agreement with Iran. And the news is encouraging there as well:

The IAEA report last week confirms that Iran cut its stock of medium enriched uranium by three-quarters. It has completely diluted half its stock down to low enriched uranium, and it has converted half of the remaining amount into reactor fuel, all ahead of schedule. It would be extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to reverse these processes. In short, Netanyahu’s bomb has been drained. His red line has been implemented.  Even if Iran were to break the deal today, it would take it many months to make enough uranium for one bomb, and the world would see them doing it. Nor is there any indication that Iran is about to break off negotiations.

So Israel is safer today – because of Obama, not Netanyahu, who has been hoist, like so many Wile E Coyotes in the past six years, by his own canards. Now think of how Obama has operated to rid the Middle East of WMDs – a vital part of our collective security – and compare it with the “tough guys” who preceded him.

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Capital Accounting

Apr 23 2014 @ 12:42pm

Piketty’s new book is already a huge financial success:

The unlikely bestseller, clocking in at nearly 700 pages, is already serving as an interesting case study for modern book publishing. One of the hallmarks of the book’s success is that it is sold out on Amazon, even though there is a digital version available on Kindle, too. … “You can have it on your e-book reader, but that’s not the same as having the book,” said [Harvard University Press sales and marketing director Susan] Donnelly. “I’m not saying this book is a Tiffany’s bag, but nobody goes to Tiffany’s and buys something and doesn’t get that little blue bag. I think there’s still some of that about books.”

The bestseller is already poised to become the most popular book ever for Harvard University Press. Donnelly predicts it will become akin to another classic for the publisher, John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice.”

Yglesias points out that the book’s success is itself an example of inequality:

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The Senate Could Go Either Way

Apr 23 2014 @ 12:22pm

Senate Odds

The Upshot calculates the Democrats’ current chances of holding the Senate:

Every day, our computer churns through the latest polls and reams of historical data to calculate both parties’ chances of winning control of the Senate. Although the Democrats currently have a 51 percent chance, that doesn’t mean we’re predicting the Democrats to win the Senate — the probability is essentially the same as a coin flip.

Nate Cohn looks at the role incumbency plays:

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The Onion On Circumcision

Apr 23 2014 @ 12:02pm

An exhaustive look at the pros and cons. Among the pros:

Kid already European enough as it is

Among the cons:

Mohel looks like he’s had about eight cups of coffee

Yeah, I know. Sullybait. A reader adds:

I think there is a third way of looking at the question of circumcision.  As my grandfather likes to say, “Don’t cut it off; wear it off.”

A Rising Tide Lifts Some Boats

Apr 23 2014 @ 11:39am

Living Standards

David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy introduce the graphic above (click to enlarge):

In 1980, the American rich and middle class and most of the poor had higher incomes than their counterparts almost anywhere in the world. But incomes for the middle class and poor in the United States have since been growing more slowly than elsewhere.

The accompanying article goes into more detail:

The findings are striking because the most commonly cited economic statistics — such as per capita gross domestic product — continue to show that the United States has maintained its lead as the world’s richest large country. But those numbers are averages, which do not capture the distribution of income. With a big share of recent income gains in this country flowing to a relatively small slice of high-earning households, most Americans are not keeping pace with their counterparts around the world.

“The idea that the median American has so much more income than the middle class in all other parts of the world is not true these days,” saidLawrence Katz, a Harvard economist who is not associated with LIS. “In 1960, we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

That is no longer the case, Professor Katz added.

Douthat considers what this change means for politics:

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The “War” In Global Warming

Apr 23 2014 @ 11:20am

Last month, in an op-ed for Fox News, retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley made a national security-based case for worrying about climate change. Eric Holthaus interviews Titley about his belief that the changing climate will be a main driving force for conflict in the 21st century:

Q. What’s the worst-case scenario, in your view?

A. … You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

Titley thinks it’s time for conservatives to start grappling with the problem:

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I’m not much of a joiner, but I was more than glad to sign the joint statement by a wide array of supporters of marriage equality, gay and straight, declaring our commitment both to open and respectful, if robust, debate, and to ensuring that gay people have their fundamental constitutional right to marry. You can read the statement here. Money quote:

As a viewpoint, opposition to gay marriage is not a punishable offense. It can be expressed hatefully, but it can also be expressed respectfully. We strongly believe that opposition to same-sex marriage is wrong, but the consequence of holding a wrong opinion kamenypickets.jpgshould not be the loss of a job. Inflicting such consequences on others is sadly ironic in light of our movement’s hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized for holding unorthodox opinions.

LGBT Americans can and do demand to be treated fairly. But we also recognize that absolute agreement on any issue does not exist. Franklin Kameny, one of America’s earliest and greatest gay-rights proponents, lost his job in 1957 because he was gay. Just as some now celebrate Eich’s departure as simply reflecting market demands, the government justified the firing of gay people because of “the possible embarrassment to, and loss of public confidence in . . . the Federal civil service.” Kameny devoted his life to fighting back. He was both tireless and confrontational in his advocacy of equality, but he never tried to silence or punish his adversaries.

Now that we are entering a new season in the debate that Frank Kameny helped to open, it is important to live up to the standard he set. Like him, we place our confidence in persuasion, not punishment. We believe it is the only truly secure path to equal rights.

Read the whole thing. We felt it necessary to take a joint, public stand, in the wake of the illiberal response to the Eich affair and some truly troubling sentiments in favor of shutting opponents up, demonizing rather than engaging, intimidating rather than persuading. Conor comments here; Peter Berkowitz here. The statement is also open for anyone to sign and join us in affirming these principles. Add your name here, if you want.

(Photo: Posters and placards from some of the very first public protests in defense of gay equality – from the Frank Kameny archive)

The $84,000 Cure

Apr 23 2014 @ 10:36am

Earlier this month, Polly Mosendz covered the debate over Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi:

[I]nsurers cannot stand this life saving, revolutionary medication. That’s because it runs $1,000 a day and the average patient requires a 12-week treatment of Sovaldi.That’s $84,000 for one cycle. For patients with a strain that is more difficult to treat, the regiment is 24 weeks. That comes in at $168,000. It is projected to rake in between $5 billion and $9 billion in profits in the United States this year alone. There are an estimated 4 million Americans with Hepatitis C, and 15,000 are killed each year by untreated chronic infections.

Unfortunately, there is not much insurers can do about the price. A comparable drug is not yet on the market.

Dr. Frank Huyler fumes:

The low cost of manufacturing the drug means that it can be sold all over the world. Only the price varies, and that price is set by Gilead executives and protected by patent law and the FDA. At the moment, Gilead has a monopoly.

In poor countries, such as Egypt, they can’t sell many $1,000 pills. But they can sell a lot of $10 pills. So that’s how much Sovaldi costs in Egypt — and Gilead Sciences is still making a profit. Thanks to the FDA, the Egyptian version of the drug can’t be imported.

This sort of blood money is nothing new. But it is among the worst of recent examples; yet another evil act, yet another predation on mostly poor, mostly desperate people, who inevitably will ask taxpayers to save them.

“Blood money?” “Evil act?” I have to say I find that rhetoric appalling.

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