Tuesday Reads: A Mixed Bag of Odds and Ends

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I thought I’d go light on politics in today’s post. I’ve got a collection of interesting links on varied topics. I hope you’ll find something to your taste.

I’ll begin with some true crime stories.

LA County’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran has completed a review of actress Natalie Wood’s autopsy report and has concluded that she was very likely assaulted before her death and was probably unconscious when she went into the water, indicating that her death is now considered “suspicious.” CBS News reports:

The Los Angeles Coroner’s Office released a new report (pdf) Monday. Sources tell CBS News the review of the original coroner’s report in 1981 raises questions about every major finding that led investigators to originally conclude Natalie Wood’s death an accident. Sources say the report concludes that the bruising on the actress’ wrists, knees, and ankles could be more consistent with injuries from an assault than they were from struggling to climb back on a boat.

Wood died on November 28, 1981, when according to her husband, actor Robert Wagner, she fell off their yacht, the 60-foot-long Splendour, possibly while trying to re-tie a dinghy that had been banging against the side of the boat, disturbing her sleep.

Her body was found hours later floating in the waters off Catalina Island.

Wood’s death was ruled an accidental drowning. But in 2011, Los Angeles Sheriff’s detectives re-opened the case after the skipper of the boat, Dennis Davern, co-authored a book in which he gave a very different account of what happened that night. Davern said, “I believe Robert Wagner was with her right up until the moment she was in the water.”

According to Davern, Wagner asked him not to tell investigators what had happened, but years later he regrets contributing to a “cover-up.”

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

However, according to CNN the county Sheriff says that Wagner is not a suspect. CNN provides two alternative descriptions of the events leading up to Wood’s disappearance from the yacht.

Davern offered a previously unreported account of how Wood’s death was reported, saying that Wagner waited hours to call the Coast Guard after Wood went missing off Catalina Island following an argument between the couple….

Wood and Wagner married in 1957, divorced in 1962, then remarried in 1972. They invited Wood’s “Brainstorm” co-star, Christopher Walken, to join them on the Thanksgiving weekend sail that preceded her death….

After Wagner then argued with Walken and broke a wine bottle, Wood left in disgust and went to her stateroom, Davern told CNN. Walken also retired to a guest room, Davern added, and Wagner followed his wife to their room. A few minutes later, Davern said, he could hear the couple fighting.

Embarrassed, Davern said, he turned up the volume on his stereo. At one point, Davern recalled, he glanced out of the pilot house window and saw Wagner and Wood on the yacht’s aft deck. “They’d moved their fight outside … you could tell from their animated gestures they were still arguing,” he said.

A short time later, Wagner, appearing to be distraught, told Davern he couldn’t find Wood. Davern searched the boat but couldn’t find her. He noticed the rubber dinghy also was missing.

Wagner claims that Wood went to her room and he didn’t follow her, but sat on deck having drinks with Walken before noticing that his wife was missing.

I’m sure you remember the story of the 10-year-old boy who shot his Neo-Nazi father, Jeff Hall, after years of abuse. I’ve written a couple of posts about it. Well, today the boy was “found responsible” for the death.

Neo-Nazi leader Jeff Hall and friends

Neo-Nazi leader Jeff Hall and friends

A Riverside County judge on Monday found a 12-year-old boy guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting and killing of his father, neo-Nazi activist Jeffrey Hall, as he slept on the family’s living room couch.

He also was found guilty of a weapons charge, with the judge determining he knew right from wrong.

This kid was 10 years old! Children that young simply cannot understand the consequences of their actions in the same sense as adults can. Yet he was found guilty of second degree murder.

Public Defender Matthew Hardy focused on the boy’s abusive home life, where gunplay and neo-Nazi gatherings were commonplace. Witnesses testified that Hall beat his son repeatedly, often in drunken or drug-addled rages.

Social workers responded to the Hall household more than 20 times. At the time of the shooting, the boy was a dependent of the court, an effort designed in part to shield him from further abuse, Hardy said.

Clinical psychologist Anna Salter, a mental health expert called by the prosecution, testified that the boy’s birth mother used heroin, LSD and other drugs while she was pregnant, which she called
“devastating” to the boy’s development. The boy also has an extensive history of violence dating to when he was 3. In school, he once tried to strangle a teacher with a telephone cord, she said.

The judge acknowledged that years of abuse and exposure to hate-filled Neo-Nazi philosophy had led to the child killing his father. Yet at the same time the judge used the child’s exposure to violence and hate to claim that this boy was mentally more mature than other 10-year-olds.

The youngster, who was 10 when he put a gun to his sleeping father’s head and pulled the trigger, was charged as a juvenile. He could be held in juvenile detention until he is 23.

The boy’s father, Jeffrey Hall, was a West Coast leader for the neo-Nazi organization known as the National Socialist Movement. He was asleep on a couch in the early morning hours of May 1, 2011, when his son crept downstairs with Hall’s .357 magnum revolver and shot his father point-blank in the head.

The judge said Hall’s attempts to indoctrinate his son into the hate group corrupted the thought process of a disturbed boy who already had displayed violent tendencies.

“It’s clear that this minor knows more than the average child about guns, hate and violence,’’ Leonard said.

Still, she added, “this is not a naive little boy unaware of the ways of the world.’’

It’s outrageous. Putting a 12-year-old boy in a facility with older boys who are already hardened criminals will erase any chance this boy has for a decent future.

One more crime story…another person is claiming to know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.

An aging mobster who was once a high-ranking member of Detroit’s La Cosa Nostra organized crime family reportedly knows where labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa is buried.

NBC 4 New York reports that Tony Zerilli, 85, said Hoffa was buried in a field in suburban Detroit, about 20 miles north of the restaurant where he was last seen in July 1975.
“All this speculation about where he is and he’s not,” Zerilli told the station. “They say he was in a meat grinder. It’s all baloney.”

Zerilli said Hoffa’s final resting place is in a field in Michigan’s northern Oakland County. He was buried in a shallow grave and the plan was to move the body at another time, but Hoffa’s remains were never moved from the first spot where they were buried, he said.

I suppose the police will have to go dig up the field and try to find poor old Jimmy Hoffa’s bones…

Since I’ve been struggling with a horrible cold plus a case of norovirus, I decided to check out the health news. I’ll bet you didn’t know that a bad cough will last around 18 days no matter what you do to treat it. According to Mark Ebell, associate professor at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, recently did a study to compare public attitudes with actual facts about viral illnesses.

A new study shows that although most people think a cough ought to last no more than a week or so, the duration of the most annoying symptom of winter illness is about 18 days — and could be more than three weeks.

Taking antibiotics in the interim is not only ineffective, it could also prompt dangerous side effects — and contribute to the country’s growing problem with bugs becoming resistant to the drugs used to treat them.

Ebell:

“A lot of times patients will come to me and they’ve been coughing for four or five days and they’re not getting any better, so they ask for an antibiotic,” he said. “After eight or nine days, they’re still not feeling better, so they ask for an even stronger antibiotic. Then they’ll say, ‘The only thing that really works for me is this really strong antibiotic.’”

The trouble is, antibiotics aren’t actually the solution for most of the 3 million outpatient cases in the U.S. each year in which cough is the chief complaint, or for the more than 4.5 million outpatient cases diagnosed as acute bronchitis or bronchiolitis. More than 90 percent of such cases are viral, not bacterial, which means they won’t respond to the drugs most folks request, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I love berries, so I found this story interesting: Berries Ward Off MI in Women. MI stands for Myocardial infarction, basically a heart attack.

Young and middle-age women whose diet included high levels of anthocyanins — the flavonoids present in red and blue fruits such as strawberries and blueberries — had a significantly reduced risk for myocardial infarction (MI), a large prospective study found.

Women whose anthocyanin intake was in the highest quintile had a 32% decrease in risk of MI during 18 years of follow-up (HR 0.68, 95% CI 0.49 to 0.96, P=0.03), according to Eric B. Rimm, ScD, of Harvard University, and colleagues.

And in a food-based analysis, women who consumed more than three servings of strawberries or blueberries each week showed a trend towards a lower MI risk, with a 34% decrease (HR 0.66, 95% CI 0.40 to 1.08, P=0.09) compared with women who rarely included these fruits in their diet, the researchers reported online in Circulation.

“Growing evidence supports the beneficial effects of dietary flavonoids on endothelial function and blood pressure, suggesting that flavonoids might be more likely than other dietary factors to lower the risk of [coronary heart disease] in predominantly young women,” they observed.

For years, researchers didn’t bother to study heart disease in women; but in recent years it has become clear that women and men differ in how heart attacks are experienced. Perhaps what we need to do for prevention differs from men too.

Here’s a science story that Dakinikat may find interesting in relation to her fascination with ancient graves and burial rites: DNA Test Sheds Light on Mystery Deaths.

A new DNA test can restore at least part of the identity of long-dead people who left no trace of their image, scientists reported on Monday.

The technique has revealed the hair and eye colours of unknown individuals slaughtered as sub-humans by the Nazis and of a mystery woman buried alongside monks in a mediaeval crypt, they said.

“This system can be used to solve historical controversies where colour photographs or other records are missing,” said Wojciech Branicki from Poland’s Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow.

Here’s one example:

Reporting in the journal Investigative Genetics, the researchers first tested it on a tooth taken from the remains of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who led Poland’s government-in-exile in Britain in World War II before dying in a plane crash in 1943.

Sikorski’s body was disinterred from a cemetery in Newark, England, in 1993 for reburial in pomp in Krakow, but was exhumed once more in 2008 for further examination to sound out a theory that he had been poisoned, shot or strangled.

Analysis of the genetic code from the tooth gave a 99-percent likelihood that Sikorski had blue eyes, and an 85-percent likelihood that he had blond hair.

Both tallied with contemporary descriptions of Sikorski and with paintings of him made many years after his death (no colour photographs of him are known to exist).

I’m running out of space, but I have a few political reads for you that I’ll post link dump style.

Allyssa Rosenberg at The New Republic: FX is Feminism for Men. Seriously, take a look at this one!

Politico: Biden: W.H. readies 19 executive actions on guns

Alternet: Noam Chomsky Slams America’s Selfish Ayn Randian Elites – Chomsky explains how elites’ obsession with short-term personal gain threatens humanity.

Alternet: 10 Awful Crimes That Get You Less Prison Time Than What Aaron Swartz Faced

Bloomberg: Geithner Says Debt Limit Steps May Run Out by Mid-February

Those are my offerings for today. What’s on your reading and blogging list?


Thursday Reads: Fiscal Cliff Crashes into Debt Ceiling, Villagers Blame Old People….And Other News

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Good Morning!!

The storm has moved into New England, but it’s mostly rain up here–very hard, windy, noisy rain. I’m very grateful it isn’t snow, but I feel for all the people down south of me who are getting hit harder. Take care, everyone!!

Yesterday Tim Geithner announced that the U.S. will hit the debt ceiling on December 31. He sent a letter (pdf) (also posted on the Treasury Department website)to Harry Reid with cc’s to other Congresscritters informing them that the Treasury can fiddle around and keep things going for at the most two months before the U.S. defaults on its debts for the first time in history.

Meanwhile, no negotiations on the “fiscal cliff” took place yesterday. John Boehner appears to have abdicated all responsibility and has announced that it’s up the the Senate to act; but Senators are in no hurry to rush back to Washington DC and clean up the House Republicans’ mess.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday urged the Senate to pass its version of legislation to avert the “fiscal cliff,” in a sign that congressional efforts to avoid a budget crisis are coming back to life days ahead of the year-end deadline.

In a statement issued by Boehner and his top lieutenants, the Republican leadership team said “the Senate must act first” to revive efforts to avert the $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts due to be triggered on Jan. 1.

They promised that the House would weigh whatever legislation the Senate produced.

What are we paying these incompetent idiots for anyway? But of course no one is talking about cutting Congresspeople’s salaries–the pressure is all on Social Security recipients. Yesterday, Ruth Markus wrote a column in support of cutting benefits because seniors and disabled people (including disabled veterans) are getting too much money (the average SS check is $1,200 per month). She thinks everyone should gratefully embrace the Chained CPI.

Here’s how the CPI works. When taxes are being calculated, brackets, standard deductions, personal exemptions and the like are ratcheted up with inflation, protecting taxpayers from being forced to pay higher taxes for what is essentially the same amount of income they had previously.

Benefits — everything from Social Security to veterans’ benefits to federal pensions — are similarly adjusted upward to protect beneficiaries’ buying power from being relentlessly eroded.

Such indexing makes eminent sense. The difficulty — and the money-saving opportunity — arises because, in the view of most economists, the current method of calculating changes in the CPI overstates the inflation rate.

It fails to account for what economists call upper-level substitution bias, and what my mother would call plain common sense: If the price rises for a certain commodity in the basket of goods used to measure inflation, consumers will choose a cheaper alternative. In my house, when the price of beef soars, we substitute chicken.

The CPI doesn’t and, as a result, taxpayers are undercharged and beneficiaries are overpaid — a lot. The overestimate is small — less than 0.3 percentage points annually but, much like compound interest, it adds up over time.

What Marcus doesn’t seem to understand is that when your income is that low, beef and chicken are are both too expensive and you substitute peanut butter and dried beans. Except that peanut butter prices have skyrocketed–what’s the next step down, cat food?

Two economists responded to Markus. Dean Baker at the CEPR: Ruth Marcus Is Outraged by Overly Generous Social Security Checks.

Well, who can blame her? After all, we have tens of millions of seniors living high on Social Security checks averaging a bit over $1,200 a month at a time when folks like the CEOs in the Campaign to Fix the Debt are supposed to subsist on paychecks that typically come to $10 million to $20 million a year.

Anyhow, her main trick for cutting benefits is to adopt the chained consumer price index as the basis for the annual cost of living adjustment. This would have the effect of reducing benefits by 0.3 percentage points for each year of retirement. This means a beneficiary would see a 3 percent cut in benefits after 10 years, a 6 percent cut after 20 years and a 9 percent cut after 30 years. This is real money. Since Social Security is more than half the income for almost 70 percent of retirees and more than 90 percent of the income for 40 percent of retirees, the hit to the affected population would be considerably larger than the hit to the top 2 percent from ending the Bush era tax cuts.

But Marcus insists this cut must be done first and foremost in the name of accuracy, since the chained CPI is supposed to provide a better measure of the cost of living. She notes but quickly dismisses the evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) consumer price index for the elderly (CPI-E), which shows that the rate of inflation seen by the elderly is somewhat higher than the overall rate of inflation.

Read Baker’s upteenth explanation of why the Chained CPI doesn’t accurately reflect spending for seniors at the link. He argues for continuing development of a CPI that takes into account that seniors spend greater proportions of their income on health care and basic necessities that can’t necessarily be replaced with cheaper substitutes.

Next, Jared Bernstein says he’s “convinced the Chained CPI is coming” and it is a benefit cut. He agrees with Baker that an elderly CPI would be a good thing, but says that Markus’ argument we should cut benefits now and deal with the injustices later makes no sense.

…as Dean notes, it would make a lot of sense to invest in a chained-weighted CPI that accounts for the notably different buying patterns of the elderly. Ruth Marcus critiques this point today but for reasons that don’t make sense to me. For example, she criticizes an elderly price index that would more heavily weight health care spending because “the burden of higher health costs falls unevenly among the elderly. Average costs are skewed upward by a minority who face very high out-of-pocket expenses…”

But a) all the commonly used price indexes use average costs and are thus “skewed” up and down when the underlying distribution is uneven, and b) there’s little question that the ‘old’ elderly—the ones most hurt by the switch to the chain-weighted measure—face high out-of-pocket medical costs.

Marcus goes on to endorse, as do we at CBPP, [immediately switching to the Chained CPI but protecting "vulnerable people from the impact"] and this is clearly the administration’s view as well—in fact, they’ve built in offsetting benefits to the poor, old elderly into their plan. That’s very important and salutary and one reason why I nervously support the switch.

But I’m more concerned than Ruth appears to be with the possibility that the current politics get us the chained CPI without the necessary protections.

It certainly looks like President Obama will go down in history as the Democrat who cut the New Deal off at the knees unless he suddenly realizes his legacy matters to him. Remember way back when Social Security was “off the table” because it doesn’t contribute to the deficit? Oh wait–that was only two weeks ago.

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Ezra Klein Reviews “Confidence Men,” and Finds it Sorely Lacking

Ezra Klein, AKA Beltway Bob

Ezra Klein (AKA Beltway Bob) is really coming up in the world. He somehow managed to get a gig writing a review of Ron Suskind’s book Confidence Men for the New York Review of Books. I’m impressed, I must admit.

As you probably guessed already, Klein is quite critical of the book. In fact he thinks Suskind should have written a completely different kind book instead–maybe even a couple of different kinds of books.

As I see it, Suskind set out to write an interesting and entertaining political book about Obama’s economic advisers, how they interacted with each other and the President, and how administration economic policy took shape over the first couple of years. The book is gossipy and very much focused on the people involved and their relationships with each other. As a psychologist, I found it fascinating to read Suskind’s insights.

Klein admits that

The work that went into Confidence Men cannot be denied. Suskind conducted hundreds of interviews. He spoke to almost every member of the Obama administration, including the President…He takes you inside…the Oval Office. He heads to Wall Street and back. He quotes memos no one else has published. He gives you scenes that no one else has managed to capture.

But that isn’t good enough. Klein disapproves of the gossipy, personality-centered tone of Confidence Men. He wants Suskind to provide evidence for his personal assessments of people. For example, Klein objects to Suskind’s description of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s appearance at Obama’s announcement that Elizabeth Warren would be working with Geithner to set up a consumer agency that she had first conceived of and then fought for. Although Warren didn’t know it yet, she would never head the agency, because Geithner had already made a deal with the bankers: they would accept a consumer agency as long as Warren wasn’t put in charge.

Here’s the passage that Klein found offensive:

This has caused discomfort not only for the president, but also for his top lieutenants, including the boyish man in the too-long jacket at Obama’s right hip, bunched cuffs around his shoes, looking more than anything like a teenager who just grabbed a suit out of dad’s closet. That’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, looking sheepish.

Klein so objected to this paragraph that he felt he had to go watch the announcement again himself, to see if Suskind’s description was accurate.

I prefer to verify. So I went back to the tape. I rewatched the September 2010 press conference where Obama introduced Warren to the country. I paid special attention to Geithner. Suskind’s right: his suit is too big. But he doesn’t look sheepish or ashamed. He looks, by turns, bored and interested. He clasps his hands behind his back. He nods attentively. He tries not to fidget. He looks like every experienced bureaucrat looks when they’re asked to stand like a prop near the president. Blank, and trying not to make any news. He failed.

But Klein doesn’t offer any evidence for his observations either. How can he know what Geithner was thinking–that he tried “not to fidget” and tried “not to make any news?” He can’t. Klein has shared his own observations and interpretations, just as Suskind did.  But Klein finds it annoying. He didn’t want to read a book about people, based on the close observations and opinions of its author. No, Klein wanted a book about policy, and he felt that

…any account of what he [Obama] has done wrong, or what he could do right, needs to provide, first and foremost, a persuasive case of how the White House could have done more to promote an economic recovery over the last three years, or could do more to accelerate one now.

Klein wanted a wonky book, heavy on policy and light on human interest, and he can’t understand why Suskind wrote something different. Quite honestly, I think Klein should go right ahead and write a book like that if he wants to. It wouldn’t be as much fun to read as Suskind’s book, but it might make people like Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong happy.
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Thursday Reads: S & P, the New Madrid Fault, the Gaddafis, and Obama in the Eye of Hurricane Irene

Good Morning!! I think I have some interesting reading for you today, so let’s get right to it.

Last night I wrote about Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein possibly being in trouble with the feds. Interestingly, on Monday another high-profile exec announced he’ll be stepping down. I’m referring to S&P president Deven Sharma. From The New York Times:

The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said late on Monday that its president, Deven Sharma, who has become the public face of the firm in the wake of its historic downgrade on the United States’ long-term debt rating, will step down and leave the company by the end of the year….

The management change had been in the works for months and was unrelated to either the Justice Department’s inquiry or to the emergence of the activist investors, Jana Partners and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, according to people briefed on the matter.

Oh really? Kind of a strange coinky-dink, then, isn’t it?

The ratings agency’s decision to downgrade the United States’ long-term credit rating to AA+ from AAA on Aug. 5 set off a storm of controversy, including criticism by President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner. The decision contributed heavily to the worst drop in American stocks since the financial crisis three years ago, as well as volatility that continues to whipsaw the markets weeks later. The other big ratings agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, maintained their top-tier rating on United States debt.

At the same time, the agency is being investigated over whether it improperly rated mortgage securities in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Standard & Poor’s, along with the other major ratings agencies, gave their highest ratings to bundles of troubled loans that appeared less risky during the housing boom, but have since collapsed in value.

Since the financial crisis, the agencies’ business practices and models have been scrutinized by Congress, and Standard & Poor’s is also being investigated by the Justice Department, people briefed on the matter have previously said. At issue is whether the agency’s independent analysis was driven by profits. The Justice Department inquiry, which began before the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the United States’ debt, is centered on whether analysts’ decisions to assign securities a low credit rating on subprime mortgage loans were overruled by business managers.

Right. I’m sure none of that had anything to do with the president of the troubled company stepping down. /snark

The Financial Times has a piece on the incoming president, Douglas Peterson.

As head of Citigroup’s Japanese operations in 2004, Mr Peterson dramatically bowed in apology before Tokyo regulators after they shut down Citi’s private banking operations there.

Now, as he takes over the embattled ratings agency just weeks after its unprecedented downgrade of US credit, Mr Peterson is likely to find himself before regulators in the US, who are looking into the downgrade and reportedly investigating S&P’s ratings of mortgages before the financial crisis.

Yet, it is Mr Peterson’s experience in Japan, and his more recent turn running Citibank, the retail banking arm of Citigroup, that has given S&P’s owner McGraw-Hill confidence that he is the right man for the job.

Seven years ago, Mr Peterson was given the tricky task of mending relations with Japanese regulators and rebuilding Citi’s tarnished reputation after the US bank’s private banking unit was found to have illegally amassed large profits and was ordered to close down.

By all accounts, the affable Mr Peterson, who is widely described in Tokyo as “nice” and “sincere”, succeeded in reassuring the Financial Service Agency and the Japanese public alike that Citi could once again be trusted with the considerable financial assets of one of the largest economies in the world.

IOW, Peterson has been hired because of his pleasing personality and his ability to make friends and influence people.

But Sean Gregory at Time argues that “A New Leader Won’t Save S&P.”

It’s tempting to read the resignation of Deven Sharma, who stepped down as president of S&P Monday night, as an admission that the rating agency goofed in downgrading the United States’ sovereign rating from AAA to AA+, even as Fitch and Moody’s maintained America’s top grade. Warren Buffett said the U.S. should be rated “quadruple A.” The Treasury department complained that S&P overestimated the nation’s future debt by $2 trillion. Timothy Geithner said that the S&P decision shows “a stunning lack of knowledge about basic U.S. fiscal budget math. And I think they drew exactly the wrong conclusion from this budget agreement.”

Guess Sharma and Geithner won’t be hanging out at any holiday parties. If the S&P downgrade was indeed a mistake, it was an expensive one. In the week after the Aug. 5 S&P downgrade, according to Bloomberg, the market value of global stocks tumbled by $7.6 trillion. Sharma, a former Booz Allen Hamilton consultant who has headed S&P for the past four years, might not be trumping this fact on his newly-polished resume. So you’re the guy who cost the world $7.6 trillion in wealth? You’re hired!

Like FT, Gregory points out that S&P has been shopping for a new leader for months, mostly because Sharma has failed the company in a number of ways. So will a new president make a difference? No, because the ratings agencies simply aren’t qualified to evaluate the credit of sovereign states.

There’s a frightening earthquake story at The Daily Beast: The Quake We Should Fear. Apparently it’s the Midwest that is due for a big one–not the east coast.

Early in the morning of May 16, while most of America was being titillated and transfixed by the appearance in court of the then-suspect Dominique Strauss-Kahn, an urgent message was suddenly received at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C.

Reports were streaming in of a catastrophic earthquake, magnitude 7.7, that had struck the Midwest near the town of Marked Tree, Ark. First reports were alarming: phenomenal property damage; casualty figures were unprecedented; transportation links were severed; and cities like St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, and Cincinnati had been thrown into utter turmoil. Eight states were believed to have been directly affected, and it was thought the death toll would be in the thousands.

A gigantic federal relief mission swung into action. Nine thousand National Guardsmen were ordered to be deployed. Triage centers were opened in all the affected cities—a list that grew longer as a secondary magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck close to the city of Mt. Carmel, Ill. The Red Cross deployed emergency teams. Power companies were given priority to restore electricity and gas supplies. Heavy equipment was sent in to clear highways and railway tracks.

Within 72 hours some kind of order was restored. Hospitals found themselves more able to cope with the vast number of patients suffering injuries. Refugees fleeing in panic were being assembled into special camps. Temporary tent cities were set up along the main refugee routes.

Huh? Oh wait. That was a FEMA exercise. But it was based on the real possibility of a major earthquake on the Madrid fault. It’s happened before and is due to happen again.

This year marks the bicentennial of the great swarm of earthquakes that afflicted New Madrid between December 1811 and February 1812—hundreds of them, day after day, but punctuated by four enormous ruptures, two occurring on Dec. 16, and one each on Jan. 23 and Feb. 7. These caused spectacular effects all across the then young, sparsely settled United States—toppling church steeples in South Carolina, ringing church bells in Boston, causing the Mississippi to reverse it course, and sinking numerous properties deep into the liquefied earths of the prairies.

Yikes! But I’m still worried that Boston hasn’t had a major earthquake since 1755–so we’re probably due also.

Yesterday I came across a couple of interesting stories on Muammar Gaddafi and his son Saif that you might want to check out.

From Scientific American: Egotist Rex: Are a Dictator’s Defiant Statements Indicative of Self-Delusion? It’s an interview with George Washington University Professor of Psychiatry Jerrold Post.

The interviewer asks Post about the many bizarre statements that Gaddafi has made since the rebellion began. He seems out of touch with reality. Is he delusional? Post discusses the circles of sycophants that surround every world leader–this may make it difficult for the leader to see what is really happening outside this protective bubble of supporters.

They can have a very unrealistic understanding and believe, as Qadhafi stated again and again, “My people, they all love me.”

I found this language of his quite remarkable. And with Qadhafi as an exaggerated example, this is true of any of the other leaders, too—namely, they believe they have widespread support. If there are public demonstrations against them, that must reflect outside agitators. This was true with [ousted Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak as well. He spoke of outside conspiracies.

But it is particularly true of Qadhafi. There is an interesting kind of almost syllogism for him: “My people all love me, and therefore if there is anyone protesting against me, they are not really my people, and that must be a consequence of outside provocation.” And one of the points that he made early on was that this was crazed youth who were on hallucinogens with which their Nescafe had been laced, which I thought was rather creative, really.

I found Qadhafi’s language in general very striking. And what is most interesting about it is it is entirely in the first person singular: “My people all love me. They will support me. My people, they love me.” It was very “me” centered.

Next the interviewer asks whether narcissism is a characteristic of many national leaders? The response could perhaps be applied to someone a little closer to home, if you know what I mean. Check it out.

Vanity Fair has a new article up about Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi. It’s rather long, but here’s the introductory paragraph:

Saif al-Islam Qaddafi—son of Muammar, and long regarded as his heir—was subjected to an arrest warrant months ago by the Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Libyan rebels in Tripoli reported that he was in custody, but Saif soon appeared in public, rallying what’s left of pro-Qaddafi forces. As NATO bombs fell on Libya, the distinguished international lawyer Philippe Sands sat down with those who know Saif Qaddafi best—a London professor, his Libyan mentor, and the prosecutor who may decide his fate. Saif Qaddafi may claim that he was merely an intermediary, or a force for moderation, or perhaps even a victim. But whatever the claims, according to the prosecutor, he was deeply complicit in his father’s crackdown this year.

Hurricane Irene could become a category 3 sometime today. It’s still predicted to go right up the coast to New England. States all along the east coast are preparing for the worst. Will it hit the Cape and islands? The LA Times suggests President Obama might have to be evacuated.

First, President Obama’s golf game was interrupted by an earthquake. Now, it appears that Hurricane Irene is beating a path toward Martha’s Vineyard, where the president is vacationing with his wife and two daughters.

The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast shows Hurricane Irene reaching landfall in the Carolinas late Friday and early Saturday before raking its way up the East Coast and into New England. Coastal areas are urged to keep tabs on the storm’s path and remain alert for possible evacuation orders as the hurricane continues to grow in intensity.

It swelled to a Category 3 storm overnight with winds that could exceed 110 mph, and remains on track to gain in strength and ferocity to become a Category 4 hurricane.

Obama is supposed to be in Washington on Sunday to speak at the opening of the Martin Luther King Memorial and then return to the Vineyard. The storm is supposed to hit DC before moving up to Massachusetts.

The eye of the storm appears to be sticking to the coastal outlines, which could spell trouble for Martha’s Vineyard, an island accessible only by boat or plane. As it has done throughout the storm, the National Hurricane Center stresses that the projected path could change dramatically as weather projections come into sharper focus over the next several days.

Hmmm…. Perhaps Mother Nature is trying to send a message to our obtuse leader: Americans need jobs!! Or maybe not.

That’s all I’ve got for you today. What are you reading and blogging about?


All Talk, No Action on Jobs

Disappoint Mints*

A couple of days ago Newt Gingrich made the bizarre claim that

President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House “is a Paul Krugman presidency.”

Of course we know that Obama cannot stand Paul Krugman, because Krugman has been criticizing Obama since the back in 2008. No, Obama’s is not “a Krugman presidency.” It’s “a ‘the dog ate my homework'” presidency. It’s a “smoke and mirrors” presidency. Or maybe a “confidence fairy” presidency.

In the morning post today, I quoted both White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Treasury Secretary Tim Geither holding forth on what Digby calls “the confidence fairy.”

Here’s Carney yesterday:

Spokesman Jay Carney says there is no question that economic growth and job creation have slowed over the past half year.

But, Carney told a White House briefing, “We do not believe that there is a threat of a double-dip recession.”

Really? And how do you know this, Jay?

He blamed the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, higher energy prices, default worries in Europe and recently resolved uncertainty over raising America’s borrowing limit. Carney said, “We believe the economy will continue to grow.”

Uh huh. But what’s that based on? Where is your evidence? Carney never produced any.

Now here’s Tim Geithner on the dramatic spending cuts included in the debt ceiling bill:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So this won’t cost us jobs?

TIM GEITHNER: No, it will not. Now … if we put this behind us then we can turn back to the important challenge of trying to find ways to make sure that we do everything we can to get more people back to work, strengthen our growth. And we’ll have more ability to do that now with people more confident and we can start to get our arms around the long-term problems.

Leaving aside the fact that no one I know is “more confident,” and Wall Street sure doesn’t seem “confident,” how will “confidence” translate into jobs? Especially now that there are caps on domestic spending that will prevent the government from helping create jobs?

Read the rest of this entry »


Thursday Reads: A Poverty Tour, Confidence Fairies, A-Rod, D.B. Cooper, and Wingnut Censors

Good Morning!! Let me get a sip of my breakfast tea, and then I’ll share what I found in the news today.

After doing his level best to wreck the U.S. economy, President Obama headed to Chicago to celebrate his birthday and rake in some campaign donations.

Taking a brief hometown respite Wednesday night, President Barack Obama used a 50th birthday bash in Uptown to raise re-election money from a friendly crowd as he sought to recharge a presidency showing signs of scars from Washington’s partisan battles.

The president told supporters at the Aragon Entertainment Center that the nation doesn’t have time to “play these partisan games.”

“I hope we can avoid another self-inflicted wound like we saw over the last couple weeks,” Obama said of the recent debt-ceiling gridlock.

Although Obama doesn’t turn 50 until Thursday, his visit symbolized presidentially and politically a need to turn the corner following weeks of bruising debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and cutting the country’s deficit.

Awww, poor guy. Screwing the poor, the elderly, baby boomers, and the working- and middle-classes must be really exhausting.

Meanwhile, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are heading up a “poverty tour”

to highlight what they see as deficiencies in the Obama’s administration and to force the president and Congress to pay more attention to poor people who have been hit hardest by the recession.

Smiley called the legislation, signed by the president, “a declaration of war on the poor.”

“I don’t understand how the president could agree to a deal that does not extend unemployment benefits, does not close a single corporate loophole and doesn’t raise the taxes on the rich,” said Smiley. “The poor are being rendered more and more invisible in this country. Nobody, not the president, not the Republicans in Congress, is speaking to the truth of the suffering of everyday people.”

Paul Krugman was on Keith Olbermann’s show last night. I keep forgetting to watch that! Krugman discussed a number of things related to the debt ceiling bill, including Newt Gingrich’s remark that the Obama’s is “the Krugman Presidency.” It is to laugh!

Today, Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney said there won’t be a double-dip recession and the economy is going to grow.

He blamed the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, higher energy prices, default worries in Europe and recently resolved uncertainty over raising America’s borrowing limit. Carney said, “We believe the economy will continue to grow.”

Al-righty then! I guess we have nothing to worry about.

At his blog, Krugman responded that “hope is not a plan.”

Of course there’s a threat. Larry Summers puts the odds at one in three; I might be slightly more optimistic, but the risk is very real. Who, exactly, is at the White House who knows better?

And think about the politics here. For two years the White House has been determinedly cheerful, always declaring that the recovery was on track, that its policies were working fine. And all it did was squander its credibility. Maybe admitting the truth, saying that in fact we hadn’t done nearly enough, would not have helped get useful legislation through Congress. But at least it would have conveyed the message that the WH was living in the same reality as ordinary workers.

Now they’re doing it again. To what purpose? Do they think the markets will be reassured? Do they think consumers will be reassured? At this point, after the “summer of recovery” came and went a whole year ago?

Apparently, that is what they think. Via Digby, Tim Geithner, who seems to be the person Obama listens to most on economic issues, strongly believes in the “confidence fairy.” He must also be the source of Jay Carney’s belief that we won’t have another recession, because that’s what Geithner told George Stepanopoulos a couple of days ago.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But don’t you think that any deficit reduction now will — will hurt the attempts of the economy to recover?

TIM GEITHNER: You know, I think the — basic reality we live with and, you know, part of governing is recognize we live with — we don’t have unlimited resources, and we inherited and are left with unsustainable deficits long term. And the president understands that for the sake of the economy long-term it’s very important we demonstrate to the American people, to people around the world that we can get our arms around this and start go back to living’ within our means.

Now, we want to do that very carefully so we create room for the economy to grow and we have the resources necessary to invest in things that are going to be very important to the future like education, like infrastructure, like incentives for private investment. And to do that, it is absolutely essential to lock in these long term savings. Now — the president was very strong on this and made sure that we were not going to accept spending cuts that would damage the prospects for near term recovery. Now, with this behind us, and we get this —

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So this won’t cost us jobs?

TIM GEITHNER: No, it will not. Now … if we put this behind us then we can turn back to the important challenge of trying to find ways to make sure that we do everything we can to get more people back to work, strengthen our growth. And we’ll have more ability to do that now with people more confident and we can start to get our arms around the long-term problems.

WTF?! Is this guy for real? As Krugman said, “hope is not a plan,” but they don’t seem to have anything else.

At The Nation, George Zornick asks a very good question: Is it time to downgrade the ratings agencies?

…by almost all accounts inside the beltway, a downgrade in the federal government’s credit rating would be catastrophic. But a closer look at who issues these ratings, how they do it, and the real-world impact of these ratings tells a different story.

The first clue that these ratings might not be highly calibrated, serious indicators of creditworthiness can be found in the 2008 economic collapse. The financial products created by Wall Street that were full of toxic mortgage securities were all blessed with gold-star ratings as safe investments from the country’s three main credit ratings agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s.

These products were so awful as to destroy Lehman Brothers, threaten many other trading firms, and plunge the economy into recession, but the ratings agencies consistently told investors they were safe. As William Greider has noted here, this essentially made the rating agencies “unindicted co-conspirators” in the collapse.

Were these agencies just bad at their jobs? Maybe, but Greider offers another more sinister theory: since the banks pay the rating agencies to examine their financial products, a harmful rating would persuade the banks to just shop elsewhere for a more favorable outcome. “This is an outrageous conflict of interest at the very heart of the financial system,” Greider writes.

Overpaid New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez is in trouble again, this time for illegal gambling. Baseball officials opened an investigation after

Star Magazine reported that Rodriguez “played in an underground, illegal poker game where cocaine was openly used, and even organized his own high-stakes game, which ended with thugs threatening players.”

Under the rules that govern baseball players, Rodriguez will have to truthfully answer baseball’s questions. If he acknowledges that he played in underground games or if officials uncover evidence that he did so, he could face a suspension.

The report Wednesday came a month after Major League Baseball opened its own investigation into Rodriguez’s ties to gambling. The investigation was prompted by a Star Magazine report in June that said Rodriguez had participated in a high-stakes illegal poker game with the actors Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Hmmm…he was playing with Red Sox fans Affleck and Damon. I wonder who talked to Star Mag? I also learned on Google that A-Rod is dating actress Cameron Diaz. Boy is she making a big mistake.

Here’s an update on the D.B Cooper story I wrote about in the Tuesday Reads: My uncle was D.B. Cooper, Oklahoma woman claims It sounds crazy, but apparently the FBI believe this woman’s story.

To Marla Cooper of Oklahoma, her uncle was D.B. Cooper — except she knew him as Uncle L.D. She believes he died in 1999.

“I saw my uncle plotting a scheme,” Cooper told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin of what she said she remembers witnessing as an eight-year-old girl four decades ago.

Cooper said she was with two uncles at her grandma’s house around Thanksgiving time.

“I was with them while they were plotting it. I didn’t really know what was going on,” Cooper said. “Afterwards on Thanksgiving Day, I saw them return and I heard them discussing what they had done with my father. I have very vivid memories of it.”

Her claim might be cause for healthy speculation, especially 40 years after the fact, but two sources close to the investigation have told CNN that Marla Cooper’s tip led to the FBI reviving the case and for the past year the agency has been actively working the lead.

She says her uncle returned home badly injured and was treated at a VA hospital. Then he disappeared and she never saw him again. Her family made her swear she would never talk about what had happened.

Finally, from Think Progress, here’s an update from the annals of wingnut craziness: MO High School Bans ‘SlaughterHouse Five’ From Curriculum, Library Because Its Principles Are Contrary To The Bible

On Monday at the Republic, MO school board meeting, four Republic School Board members reviewed a year-old complaint that three books are inappropriate reading material for high school children. In a 4-0 vote, the members decided to ax two of the three books from the high school curriculum and the library shelves: Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was spared. The resident who filed the original complaint targeted these three books because “they teach principles contrary to the Bible”

Wesley Scroggins, a Republic resident, challenged the use of the books and lesson plans in Republic schools, arguing they teach principles contrary to the Bible.

“I congratulate them for doing what’s right and removing the two books,” said Scroggins, who didn’t attend the board meeting. “It’s unfortunate they chose to keep the other book.”

Horrors! Contrary to the Bible? We can’t have that! You know, sometimes I’m very grateful to live in a relatively civilized place like Boston. This is one of those times.

On that note, I’m going to get another cup of tea and then check out what you all are reading and blogging about. Please post your links in the comments.


Late Night: The Perfect Candidate to Challenge Obama

Lots of liberal groups are calling for Elizabeth Warren to run for the Senate in Massachusetts against Senator Scott Brown. But why not challenge Obama instead? Warren has nothing to lose–Obama already hates her guts and has publicly humiliated her multiple times. What more can he do to her? Running against Obama would give Warren a chance to turn the tables and represent the American people against the top enforcer of the oligarchy.

Today Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism presented a thoughtful, well-argued case for why it would be much better for Warren and for liberals who are disgusted with Obama if she ran for President rather than Senator. It’s a fairly lengthy post and very meaty, so you should read the whole thing.

Yves argues that even though Warren wouldn’t win, she could help elevate the national discourse. If she were running against Obama and debating him, the media would have to cover it, and some of her ideas might make it through the media filter.

And just imagine the debates! Warren would wipe the floor with Obama, exposing his lack of moral values and his pitiful ignorance of basic economics. Obama would be horrified to once again have to compete with a brilliant, competent woman. He might even be forced to sneakily use his middle finger again or pull out his tired sexist remarks. This time more people might notice, now that the koolaid has worn off for so many former Obots.

One quibble I have with Yves is her argument that Warren is “a Reagan-level Great Communicator.” Please. Reagan couldn’t speak off-the-cuff much better than Obama. Did you ever watch one of his press conferences? But Yves is young, and probably grew up under Reagan. I guess I can forgive her for that one. She points out that

unlike Obama, a patrician wannabe who sees Reagan as a role model, she taps into deeply rooted traditional American values, that of a just society. Obama, by contrast, exploited the intense frustration with eight years of misrule by Bush the Second, and his liberal posturing was merely a market positioning exercise, to further differentiate him from Brand Republican.

Her position, which sounds dogmatic leftie to those lacking historical perspective, would have been dead center circa the early to mid 1980s, a Javits/Rockefeller Republican or a pretty tame Democrat of that era.

Hmmm…not quite sure I buy that either, but whatever. She’s right that Warren is no lefty. She’s simply an honest person who has studied what is happening to the American middle class and has the decency to prefer trying to change things to trying to cash in on the greed of bankers.

But here’s the best reason for Warren to run:

Warren also stands for a second set of ideas, that of competence and accountability in government. Not only did she build a major organization in an impressively short period of time, but she understands the importance of what we call in the consulting world “deliverables”, that is, providing tangible evidence of progress. She got various government agencies and banks to agree on a simplified mortgage disclosure form, a “to do” on the banking officialdom’s list that had somehow been too complicated to get done until Warren took it on. And this isn’t just good for consumers, it will also lower costs to banks.

By contrast, not only did Obama make a spectacular set of campaign promises that he failed to honor, he is completely unapologetic about those lies. While there is, sadly, a certain amount of misrepresentation that is considered normal among politicians, Obama’s looks to have set a new standard.

Yes, Warren is competent and efficient–she gets things done. She identifies a problem, and she attacks it doggedly–and she’s tough as nails. She has taken more abuse in the past few years and most people face in a lifetime. And she’s come through unbroken and unbowed.

Yves points out that in comparison to what she might accomplish with a failed primary campaign for President, Warren’s chances of effecting real change in the Senate would be slim to none. As we’ve seen recently, the Senate is utterly dysfunctional and filled with people who are completely out of touch with what is really happening in the country. If Warren tried to actually accomplish something as a freshman Senator, she’d be slapped down in no time flat.

I must say I like this idea. Just to get you thinking about it, here are a couple of videos of Warren making Timmy Geither look like a guilty schoolboy.

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