Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's Long Past Time
The Pentagon has released its much-anticipated report detailing the potential impact of repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. So, how will it effect the military if gay and lesbian soldiers were allowed to serve openly? Not much at all.
The Pentagon has concluded that allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the United States armed forces presents a low risk to the military’s effectiveness, even at a time of war, and that 70 percent of service members believe that the impact of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would be either positive, mixed or of no consequence at all.
The report also found that a majority — 69 percent — believed they had already worked with a gay man or woman, and of those the vast majority — 92 percent — reported that the unit’s ability to work together was very good, good or “neither good nor poor.”
“We are both convinced that our military can do this, even during this time of war,” Mr. Johnson and General Ham wrote. “We do not underestimate the challenges in implementing a change in the law, but neither should we underestimate the ability of our extraordinarily dedicated service men and women to adapt to such change and continue to provide our nation with the military capability to accomplish any mission.”
Secretary Gates in a press conference this afternoon went a step further, urging Congress to act immediately to change the policy. There's no reason for Republicans to delay any longer. Military leadership is behind the move. Just do it, already. As the report states, much of the lingering opposition within the armed services is "driven by misperceptions and stereotypes...(that) were exaggerated and not consistent with the reported experiences of many service members."
One thing we can confirm from the leaked/dumped diplomatic cables: when it comes to Iran, after 8 years of bumbling bluster, we finally have leadership and a strategy, even if the end game is a bit unclear. Read the NYTimes article.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wikileaks: Big News, or Big Pile of Nothing?
So, Wikileaks has unmasked U.S. diplomatic communications around the world. What incendiary things have we learned? The Afghan government is corrupt, the Chinese have exploited Google to spy on damned near everyone, Qaddafi is pretty much crazy, there is too much material for nuclear weaponry out there, and nobody really knows how to deal with Iran or North Korea, though lots of people have ideas, including the Saudis who see Iran as the biggest problem they face but are afraid to say that out loud.

Of course, we pretty much realized this stuff all along. To me, the shocker here is not so much what we discovered but how little of substance is here. Reports from our embassies would seem to be primarily the stuff of gossip, speculation, and hypothetical wondering. I'm sure some officials are embarrassed and angry, but I'd say there's an even better chance that many world leaders are thrilled with this massive leak. Their biggest secrets are still under wraps. Of the 251,287 documents in this latest Wikileaks dump, not a single one was marked "Top Secret."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

They're Sitting on Piles of Cash
The nation’s workers may be struggling, but American companies just had their best quarter ever.

American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.659 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.
Start hiring already!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crystal Ball Update
Let's review: I predicted NHL division champions before the season started: NJ, Washington, Toronto, Nashville, Vancouver, and San Jose.

Currently, the leaders are Philadelphia, Washington, Montreal, Detroit, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. More to the point, 3 of my predicted champs are languishing in last place in their respective divisions. Indeed only half of my big predicted winners would even make the playoffs if they started right now.

Lots of season left! Still, caveat emptor.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Long-Range Planning
Looks like I need to plan a lengthy vacation for sometime in May of 2015.
The National Rifle Association is coming to Nashville in May 2015 in what is expected to be the largest single convention this city has ever hosted, Mayor Karl Dean announced today.
The city beat out Philadelphia, Dallas, Kansas City and Louisville for the gathering, which is expected to draw more than 50,000 convention-goers and fill between 5,000 and 6,000 hotel rooms, according to Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Do We Care?
That iTunes and The Beatles have finally, finally reached an agreement?

I was hoping that when it finally took place there would be something ground-breaking about the deal - a dramatic new pricing system, or maybe the inevitable move to cloud-based music storage. Instead, they are just kind of the last ones to jump on the iTunes ship.

My only real question is what happens to the tracks on, say Sgt. Pepper's or The White Album that segue one to another. If you buy "Dear Prudence", do you hear the jet plane from the end of "Back in the USSR" at the beginning? And, I haven't looked at the store yet to check this out, but do you have to pay separately for each track comprising the suite of songs on Side 2 of Abbey Road? "Her Majesty", as well? Would be nice if they sold the entire stretch together as one.

Monday, November 15, 2010

With Enough Quantity, You Generate Quality
Neuroscience on Metaphors:
Look at neurons from [a human and a fruitfly] under a microscope and they look the same. They have the same electrical properties, many of the same neurotransmitters, the same protein channels that allow ions to flow in and out, as well as a remarkably high number of genes in common. Neurons are the same basic building blocks in both species.

So where’s the difference? It’s numbers — humans have roughly one million neurons for each one in a fly. And out of a human’s 100 billion neurons emerge some pretty remarkable things.

Friday, November 12, 2010

More on the Deficit Commission
So how, exactly, did a deficit-cutting commission become a commission whose first priority is cutting tax rates, with deficit reduction literally at the bottom of the list?

Actually, though, what the co-chairmen are proposing is a mixture of tax cuts and tax increases — tax cuts for the wealthy, tax increases for the middle class. They suggest eliminating tax breaks that, whatever you think of them, matter a lot to middle-class Americans — the deductibility of health benefits and mortgage interest — and using much of the revenue gained thereby, not to reduce the deficit, but to allow sharp reductions in both the top marginal tax rate and in the corporate tax rate.

It will take time to crunch the numbers here, but this proposal clearly represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans. And what does any of this have to do with deficit reduction?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

More Serious, but Just as Unlikely to Become Reality
Economist Brad DeLong offers a 7-point economic plan "everybody centrist and deficit-hawkish in the reality-based community should be willing to commit to today." Sadly, as he notes, the centrists are somewhere in hiding.
Sikh and You Shall Find
A feel-good Veterans Day story, over at the other blog, as the US Army found a recruit with just the language skills they were looking for, but with one big barrier to his service. Fortunately, they found a way to make it work, making history in the process.
The Good and the Bad
I mentioned before that the Debt Commission's recommendations (actually it's the chairmen's recommendations) included some good and some (spectacularly) bad ideas. I'm not sure it's even worth going through them since none of this is going to happen in any comprehensive way anyway. Even if the entire Commission could reach a consensus on some of them (requiring 14 of the 18 members to agree), Congress as it is currently situated is not going to take up and vote for many of these reforms.

Still, for whatever it's worth, here are the ideas I like and those I loathe:

Good: Cutting defense spending. There are too many defense projects that are continually funded not because they are necessary but because of traditions and turf-protections that are inefficient. The Center for American Progress has an excellent report on ways to responsibly cut the defense budget, including a permanent reduction in overseas personnel not in Iraq or Afghanistan, reducing our redundant nuclear force, canceling, finally, the V-22 Osprey and other overpriced, underperforming congressional darlings.

Bad: Cutting military health benefits, by requiring co-pays for active personnel and raising co-pays for veterans. Frankly, they continue to have a hard enough time as it is getting the care they need. This is a petty and insulting way to cut costs. The best way to reduce health costs associated with military personnel is to stop putting so damned many of them in harm's way.

Good: Slight adjustments to Social Security. A very small increase in the retirement age doesn't much excite me, or seem fair, but we could get used to it and it would go a long way toward fixing the highly overstated shortfall coming as baby boomers retire. Raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security tax would go the rest of the way.

Bad: Changing the Social Security benefit index from being tied to wages to a formula that also weighs the Consumer Price Index. This sounds like a slight downturn in benefits, but is one that will head downward essentially forever, gradually decimating the program as a safety net as the gap between what one earned before age 60 and what one receives in benefits gets larger and larger.

Good: Cutting agriculture subsidies. We talk about it every election cycle. Yet somehow the interests of Iowans consistently wins out over the interests of the country. (I wonder why that is...?). Let's stop paying for the over-production of corn finally.

Bad: Picking on Public Broadcasting and the Smithsonian. Recommendations from the co-chairs include ending a subsidy for the Public Broadcasting Company and charging a fee for access to the Smithsonian Museums. These are both horribly petty ideas that would save very little money in comparison to the harm done. The Smithsonian, especially, should remain free and open to the public as a way of inviting all citizens to share in and appreciate our rich cultural history. An increased effort to solicit voluntary donations would help with the costs and still maintain the important message sent by universal access to these national treasures.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Financial Times political correspondent Alex Barker:
George W. Bush’s bombastic return to the world stage has reminded me of my favourite Bush anecdote, which for various reasons we couldn’t publish at the time. Some of the witnesses still dine out on it.

The venue was the Oval Office. A group of British dignitaries, including Gordon Brown, were paying a visit. It was at the height of the 2008 presidential election campaign, not long after Bush publicly endorsed John McCain as his successor.

Naturally the election came up in conversation. Trying to be even-handed and polite, the Brits said something diplomatic about McCain’s campaign, expecting Bush to express some warm words of support for the Republican candidate.

Not a chance. “I probably won’t even vote for the guy,” Bush told the group, according to two people present.I had to endorse him. But I’d have endorsed Obama if they’d asked me.”
I wonder if Obama's campaign could have survived a Bush endorsement?
Deficit Commission Recommendation
President Obama's "bipartisan" panel tasked with developing plans for attacking our budget deficit has returned with some recommendations. From the beginning, this panel sounded like a bullshit idea and indeed most of their suggestions are ludicrous and offensive. Here's hoping the White House is prepared to endorse the few good ideas and show some mettle by fighting the rest.

[UPDATE: Read Ezra Klein on the many reasons why these recommendations are pointless, and not what the Fiscal Commission was designed to do in the first place.]
For You Visual Learners
The FDA is ramping up anti-smoking initiatives, including a plan to add graphic warnings to smoking packages. The agency just released potential ads, including the one you see on the right. You can view all nine proposals here. Check them out.

The process before final implementation is still a lengthy one: a period of public comment before they decide on the few that will actually be used, then the Tobacco Control Act authorizing this regulation (passed, it should be noted, by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Obama) allows 15 months before such a rule could take effect. So, it will not be until late 2012 that we actually see these on the shelves.

I'm not crazy about all of the pictures they chose, but in general, this campaign is an excellent plan, making all the more real the dangers of smoking, and upgrading the warning from what is otherwise ignorable as small print. Smoking is a menace - not just to the public health system, but to the poor unfortunate souls - including children - that breathe it in without having the slightest interest in taking a puff. If we can keep someone from taking up the nasty addiction, or help give an extra incentive to someone trying to stop, all the better.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Great Moments in Dieting
Nutrition professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks to bring himself down to a healthy weight. His diet of choice? Twinkies and other delicious hostess cakes.
For 10 weeks, Mark Haub... ate one of these sugary cakelets every three hours, instead of meals. To add variety in his steady stream of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks, Haub munched on Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos, too.

His premise: That in weight loss, pure calorie counting is what matters most -- not the nutritional value of the food.

This is not such a radical finding. I mean, yeah if you nearly starve yourself except for a daily protein shake and a few sugary snacks, you will probably lose weight. The surprising part is that his cholestorol, triglycerides and other overall health indicators improved also. Go figure.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Paradise Lost (Collector's Edition) (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / Paradise Lost 2: Revelations)The West Memphis Three
Longtime readers have had to read my thoughts on this before, but no film has ever affected me quite as much or in the way that Paradise Lost did. It is a breathtaking documentary, lifting the veil on a depressingly inadequate justice system and some stupidly brash teenagers that got caught up in it.  16 or so years later, they still sit in prison, one on death row.

For the first time in years, though, they have some decent news on the legal front. The Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled that the judge in the case must hold a hearing to determine the legal ramifications of new DNA tests.

The Memphis Commercial-Appeal editorial board is not sure of the boys' innocence. Neither am I. But they recognize that a new inquiry is necessary:
It was an extraordinary ruling by the court, rightly delivered without fear that a horrible miscarriage of justice might be revealed 17 years after the defendants were first placed behind bars.
Evidence collected by both the defense and the prosecution will be presented. It won't be necessary for the defendants to prove their innocence, but they might get a chance to show that there is enough doubt about guilt to set them free.
Nature's Candy
The weekend news that caught my eye - and hits a little close to home: while the government wants to push a healthy lifestyle, they are also desperately pushing....cheese. A Department of Agriculture program called Dairy Management has been partnering with companies like Domino's Pizza to aggressively market cheese products.
Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

The organization’s activities, revealed through interviews and records, provide a stark example of inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.
Cheese is a major contributor to America's saturated fat intake. In fact, a group of physicians disputing the government's remarkable (and unsupported) claim a few years ago that an increase in cheese consumption could help with weight loss said that the delicious treat is likely the biggest culprit in the obesity epidemic.

This is all tough for me to take. I love cheese. And eat way way too much of it. I understand the government's role in promoting American-made food products, but it's hard enough resisting the allure of nature's candy without millions of tax dollars going to help urge me to eat The Wisconsin.

On Oct. 13, Domino’s announced the latest in its Legends line of cheesier pizza, which Dairy Management is promoting with the $12 million marketing effort. Called the Wisconsin, the new pie has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust. “This is one way that we can support dairy farms across the country: by selling a pizza featuring an abundance of their products,” a Domino’s spokesman said in a news release. “We think that’s a good thing.”

A laboratory test of the Wisconsin that was commissioned by The Times found that one-quarter of a medium thin-crust pie had 12 grams of saturated fat, more than three-quarters of the recommended daily maximum. It also has 430 calories, double the calories in pizza formulations that the chain bills as its “lighter options.”
As the NYTimes graphic indicates, America's per capita cheese consumption has nearly tripled in the last 40 years. Budget-wise, this is by no means egregious. A few million Agriculture dollars is a drop in the bucket of federal spending, obviously. But the message programs like this send is a troubling one. We should be engaged in marketing tasty, healthy foods grown domestically. That would provide all the economic help the food industry needs without sacrificing the public health in the process.

The fat in cheese? It sells itself. As my daily intake attests.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Election Remainders
In case you missed it... in addition to the generally depressing election results Tuesday there were a few more interesting electoral decisions:

California decided against legalizing marijuana, 54%-46%.

Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that will outlaw Islamic Sharia law from taking over the state's judicial system. Because you have to combat the pending Muslim revolution in the Sooner State, right?

6 candidates across the country remained on the ballot even after having passed away. 4 of them won.

95 candidates had signed a pledge to support Net Neutrality. All 95 were defeated.

32% of Tea Party candidates across the country won.

The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund endorsed a record 164 openly gay candidates for Tuesday's election. A record 106 won.

Meanwhile, 3 Iowa Supreme Court justices were defeated in retention elections. Their crime? All 3 had determined that denial of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

The conservative Blue Dog Democrat coalition was cut in half after Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Predictions [UPDATED]
Sadly, this is an optimistic view. I'm saying the Democrats lose only 48 seats in the House and wind up with 52 Senate seats, counting Lieberman.

What say you?

[UPDATE: So, not a good not to be optimistic about the House. Democrats lost about 65 seats. In the Senate, Dems actually did a tiny bit better than I expected, and will have a 53-47 edge assuming we don't get any crazy ideas from Lieberman or Ben Nelson.

Where the night really feels bad is right here in Tennessee, which now has GOP control of the Governorship and both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. There will be a lot of seriously crazy nut job bullshit coming out of our state now. What's that you say? It's already batshit insane? You ain't seen nothing yet.]

Monday, November 01, 2010

Social Security is an Easy Fix
Kevin Drum points to a chart that helps explain why, yes, there is a Social Security issue in the very long term, but no, it's not even close to the challenge that Medicare poses.
This is from page 15 of the latest trustees report. What's important is that, unlike Medicare, Social Security costs don't go upward to infinity. They go up through about 2030, as the baby boomers retire, and then level out forever. And the long-term difference between income and outgo is only about 1.5% of GDP.
This is why I keep saying that Social Security is a very manageable problem. It doesn't need root-and-branch reform. The trust fund makes up Social Security's income gap for the next 30 years, so all it needs is some modest, phased-in tweaks that cut payouts by a fraction of a point of GDP and increase income a fraction of a point.
I would say that even modest cuts in payouts could be quite problematic politically, but not likely to cause France-style riots in the streets over the plan. And small cuts would be far more palatable than  the draconian measures of privatization proposed by Republicans.