Saturday, September 17, 2016

Natural Weekends - Seagulls

Hard to believe, but I don't think I've had any pictures of seagulls on the blog yet. This weekend's pictures were not taken from the deck but while out on stroll along the water. In the one above, I think someone has stolen his lunch! Below, the gull is dropping the shell on the rocks below to get to its meal.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Who Needs Saint Bernards When You Have A Cat?

Since it's Friday, how about a cat story. A Hungarian hiker in the Swiss Alps got lost in the mountains but was saved by a black and white cat who led him to path to the town below. Apparently, the cat belongs to the family that owns a nearby hostel. Here is a photo of the hero (or, more probably, heroine) cat:

Analysis Of Obamcare Problems Misses Two Big Points

The recent news about Obamacare has been great in terms of the number of people covered and reducing the uninsured. The negative news has revolved around insurers pulling out of certain markets and the projected large increase in premiums that is coming next year. But there are a couple of points that continually get neglected in this coverage.

First, one of the issues for the insurers is that not enough "healthy" people are signing up which drives up their cost. Many pundits blame this on the lack of younger people signing up. But the overwhelming factor for this has nothing to do with youth or the millennials. It has to do with the fact that the original estimates of the number of employers who would forgo offering employer-sponsored health insurance was greatly over-estimated. I'm not sure why employers are so determined to keep this up. After all, employer-sponsored health insurance is a huge cost for employers, both to administer and to subsidize and the penalty for not offering a plan is substantially lower than the per-employee cost administering one. But apparently they believe they need to offer it to keep their competitive advantage and they do not want to be the first among their competitors to not offer it.

Secondly, even after you account for the increases in premiums next year, the cost will still be below the initial projections that were made when the plan was passed. And the real question is not how much more will you pay next year but whether you would be paying more if there was no Obamacare. And the clear answer is, yes, you would be paying substantially more or, more likely, you would not have any insurance at all.

Fixing the issues with Obamacare are probably relatively easy - adjusting the risk pools for insurers and perhaps increasing subsidies. But they are probably impossible to get done in the current polarized political climate. But it would be nice when people discussed the problems, they would at least make the above two points relatively clear.

Clinton Tax Plan Adds Up But NYT Complains It's "Complex"

Maybe my reading of the NY Times these days is becoming so jaded that I'm overreacting. But it seems to me that his article on Hillary Clinton's detailed tax plans spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the fact that it is complicated and it treats that as a de-facto negative. The other big complaint is that it's not a total overhaul of the tax code. The fact that the numbers seem to add up and it is quite clear in its intent to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to help middle class Americans don't seem to engender any credit from the article at all. Yes, tax simplification might be nice but it is never going to happen in the current political environment. And the article talks about centrist Democrats still wishing for a "Grand Bargain". Sadly, for the Times, I think that day has passed and those "centrist" Democrats no longer exist. The Democratic party platform now calls for increasing Social Security and vows to fight any attempt to reduce it. But the saddest part of all in this article is the constant harping on complexity - complexity may make things hard but that doesn't make it wrong. Read the article for yourself and tell me if I'm incorrect.

Mylan Now Wants To Get Consumers, Taxpayers To Subsidize EpiPen Profits

I see Mylan, the price-gouging makers of EpiPen, have devised a new strategy for ripping of the poor people who rely on their product. Rather than have those people pay the outrageous price for the product, they will get taxpayers and consumers to pay instead. The proposal, put out by some doctors and non-profits, would allow the EpiPen to be added the federal list of preventive services and would thereby reduce the out-of-pocket expenses for the millions of people that need the product. Of course, EpiPen would still be charging the outrageous price for their product. But the cost would now be borne by the federal government, health insurers, and employers. And you can be sure that all three will be passing along this increased cost to consumers and taxpayers.

The Times' story shows that Mylan is in large part funding the calls of the doctors and non-profits who are putting forth this proposal. Mylan has had remarkable success influencing government policy to their advantage, getting a law passed that mandated the pens be in every school and having states require hotels and restaurants also carry them. They are currently pushing for federal regulation to require commercial airlines to carry them.

This is what happens when you try to run a hybrid health care system that mixes public and private. Eventually, private industry can get the public to subsidize their profits, especially in this day and age where it is so easy to essentially "buy" legislation. Under a more sane system, the government would regulate the cost of the product. Of course, we never would have gotten to this point in the first place without Mylan exploiting its ridiculous patent protection.

Brutal Mississippi Prison Finally Closed

A friendly reader alerted me to this story yesterday and, remarkably, the NY Times is actually on it today. (It is amazing how the paper seems to overlook some negative Trump news from the prior day but manages to be right on top of an item like this, but that's for another post.) Thanks to a six-year long lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the worst prisons in the United States, Mississippi's Walnut Grove Correctional Facility, has been closed. You will not be shocked to learn that the prison has been privately run for profit by a number of different firms since 2003.

The prison housed adults and teens and the documentation of the abuse of inmates is shocking. To quote the SPLC, "Youthful offenders at Walnut Grove endured rampant violence and sexual assaults, often by the guards who were paid to protect them. One young man suffered severe brain damage after he was stabbed and beaten during a fight that was facilitated by a guard. U.S. Justice Department investigators reported that sexual abuse at Walnut Grove – including 'brazen' sexual misconduct by prison staffers – was 'among the worst that we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.' At the time, the facility held boys as young as 13." That Justice Department report described frequent rapes of younger inmates by older ones, guards refusing inmates medical care, and the guards themselves raping inmates and supplying drugs and weapons to inmates. Some of the guards were gang members themselves and would release inmates to assault other inmates or to engage in gladiator-type fights which the guards organized and bet on. And the corruption went all the way to the top, as the prison warden was arrested and convicted of escorting an inmate to a local motel where he had sex with her. Incredibly, he received only a seven-month prison sentence.

In 2012, a judge ordered all children and teens removed and put the prison under a federal consent decree for violating prisoner's constitutional rights. But the violence and corruption still continued and, in 2014, there were two major riots at the prison. Finally, yesterday, the state of Mississippi decided to close the prison and transfer the inmates to other facilities. The state blamed budget cuts on the closure. Whatever the reason, it was clearly long past time to shutter this house of horrors.

The closing of Walnut Grove follows on the heels of last month's decision by the Justice Department to stop using private prisons altogether. A Justice Department study that prompted that decision showed that private prisons are less safe for both inmates and guards; do not save the government money; have significantly higher levels of contraband; and have significantly fewer services and programs for inmates. The majority of private prisons in the US are state prisons like Walnut Grove so the impact of the federal decision will be minimal. But it is yet another example of the foolishness of trying to privatize what should be a public responsibility. It was merely another give-away to private corporations to fleece the public and provide below standard services simply to line their own pockets.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Astronomy Adventure - Moon Craters

I haven't had any astrophotography on the blog for a while and that's primarily been because the weather and the seeing has been so lousy. And the nights that have been good, have been times when I've been out or just haven't had the energy to get out there and take some pictures. But the crisp, clear weather that you start to get in September has finally arrived so I finally got out there and got some photos. I was actually trying to capture Crater Boussingault on the Moon which is a nice crater within a crater but I was looking too far to the west. Instead I got some decent photos of the area around Crater Schiller.

Crater Schiller is the long oblong crater on the right. You can see the far walls of the dark Craters Bettinus and Kircher at the terminator in the middle.

The large crater in the middle foreground with the semicircle of craters gradually increasing in size within it is Crater Clavius. The two large craters above near the terminator are Craters Casetus and Moretus.

This photo was taken the very next night and you can see the oblong Crater Schiller at the middle top. The craters on the terminator as you head down from Schiller to the lower right at Craters Phocylides, Nasmyth, Schickard (the large one), Lehman, Lacroix, and the deep dark one at the lower right is, I believe, Vieta, with the smaller Crater Fourier just to its left.

All these were taken with the Starblast 4.5 with a 6.3 lens and a 3x Barlow.

Wells Fargo CEO Blames Low Level Employess For Massive Fraud

The level of greed and arrogance exhibited by the masters of the universe on Wall Street is always striking. But every so often they do or say something that still manages to totally shock you. In the wake of the massive fraud perpetrated at Wells Fargo, where customers were charged for services they neither wanted nor had signed up for, millions of bogus accounts were opened solely to line the pockets of the bank and its employees, and where over 5,000 people had to be fired, the CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, actually came out and blamed the whole affair on a small number of lower level bank employees who did not "honor" the bank's ethics and culture. He denied that there was any high-pressure sales environment and denied there were incentives to do "bad things". Of course, the reason employees opened up these bogus accounts was primarily to receive sales bonuses.

Stumpf also neglected to take any management responsibility for the clear lack of controls within the bank that allowed this fraud to occur. And his inability to acknowledge any management involvement is frankly unbelievable. First, there was a Los Angeles Times expose in 2013 that detailed the pressure-cooker sales culture where employees who did not meet their quota were forced to stay late or even work weekends in order to meet their goals. The article went on to describe how "to meet quotas, employees have opened unneeded accounts for customers, ordered credit cards without customers' permission and forged client signatures on paperwork." If management was unaware of the problem before 2013, they certainly had no excuse afterward. As Elizabeth Warren said, "Come on...this went on for years and they didn’t smell anything in the air about fake accounts?"

The arrogance of this guy is just chilling and his denials simply defy credulity. These Wall Street CEOs manage to get paid millions of dollars but for what - whenever something goes wrong or a crime is committed, it is never their fault. It seems more like they are just like Mafia dons, those untouchable heads of criminal enterprises.

More Prosecutorial Misconduct

Today's news provided us with two more cases of prosecutorial misconduct. In Kansas, an investigation into drug trafficking at the Leavenworth Detention Center resulted in prosecutors obtaining videos and recordings of meetings and conversations between prisoners and their attorneys. The prison is a privately run institution and was apparently illegally recording meetings that prisoners had with their attorneys. The recording were then turned over to prosecutors as a result of a search warrant served on the prison that was investigating drug trafficking within the prison. Seven people including a prison guard were indicted based on that investigation.

Included in the material prosecutors received from that search warrant were videotapes of meeting rooms where attorneys would meet with their clients. Prosecutors say there was no audio associated with those tapes although defense attorneys claim otherwise. In any case, even juts a video of such meetings is a violation of attorney-client privilege. Subsequently, it was also revealed that audio recordings of phone calls between prisoners and their attorneys were also turned over to prosecutors. US District Judge Robinson granted a motion by defense lawyers to issue a cease-and-desist order covering the recording of protected attorney-client meetings and phone calls. She made it clear that similar violations at other prisons run by the same private company may be occurring. She then announced that she would appoint a special master to investigate how prosecutors received the prohibited material. Incredibly, one of the Assistant US Attorneys said she did not believe all the meetings between attorneys and their clients in the meeting rooms videotaped were privileged. The US Attorney's office also objected to the appointment of a special master. If that wasn't bad enough, the judge accused an Assistant US Attorney of trying to enter her office where the prohibited material is kept while she was away. The attorney was interrupted by the judge's clerk and claims she was trying to slip some papers under the judges door. And now the judge is wondering if prosecutors knew of these recordings before the search warrant occurred.  Please read the whole sordid story - it is incredible.

The other case is your more usual, run-of-the-mill misconduct where prosecutors "forget" to turn over some evidence that might indicate the accused is innocent. The case involves the former Clarkson University soccer coach, Nick Hillary, who is charged with murdering the 12-year old son of his girlfriend. The original indictment by the Grand Jury was thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct, including forcing the accused's 17 year old daughter to reveal the details of a privileged attorney-client discussion she had with her lawyer as well as bullying that same 17 year old with a variation of the same question thirteen times in order to show that she could not provide an alibi for the defendant. That was only part of the misconduct with the prosecutor's handling of the Grand Jury. That indictment was thrown out and in 2014 a newly impaneled Grand Jury finally did indict the defendant, despite no evidence of any kind linking him to the crime scene - no witnesses or evidence placing him at the crime scene, no hair, fingerprint, fiber, or tissue evidence whatsoever.

The trial got underway two days ago and yesterday it was revealed that an inmate at Attica State Prison told a New York State Trooper in 2015 that he had seen a St. Lawrence County deputy sheriff, John Jones, enter the building at about the same time the boy was murdered. The deputy sheriff had also had a relationship with the boy's mother and had been considered a suspect. That report was never passed on to the defense by the prosecutors. What makes this even more damaging is that Nick Hillary had already been charged with the murder when the inmate made his statement. If he was looking to "make a deal", the inmate would have been much better off saying he had seen Mr. Hillary. In addition, in pre-trial hearings, the prosecution did try to introduce DNA evidence taken from under the victim's fingernails using a cutting-edge technology from New Zealand. Although the state's own experts have stated that no conclusions could be reached from that DNA, the prosecution tried to show that this new analysis showed it was Hillary's DNA. The judge rejected that effort saying there was no way to show the state police had preserved the samples correctly for analysis. So the prosecution turned around and tried to say that the DNA result just showed it could not have been Jones. That pre-trial attempt indicates the prosecution was worried about any defense efforts to implicate Jones and withholding the evidence of the inmate would also help in that regard.  Frankly, you always have to be suspicious of a prosecution of an individual when an uncharged suspect is a law enforcement officer.  But the degree of misconduct that has already occurred in this case is already pretty incredible.

The amount of prosecutorial misconduct in the US these days is simply astounding. Changes in the law to make it a felony or almost certain disbarment are about the only things that will change these renegade prosecutors' behavior.

ACC Joins Boycott Of North Carolina; Pence Objects

First it was the NBA; then it was the NCAA; and now it's the ACC.  All three sports entities have pulled their championship events out of North Carolina because of its discriminatory "bathroom bill" law known as HB2. The NBA pulled the 2017 All Star Game out of Charlotte. The NCAA has pulled seven championships out of North Carolina and will relocate them elsewhere. This includes the NCAA Regional basketball championship which has perennially been held in Charlotte. And now the ACC has vowed to move any neutral-site championships that it holds out of the state.

And what does Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Mike Pence have to say about all this. "Donald Trump and I simply believe that these decisions are best made at the state level, by the people", says Pence. I'm pretty sure why we know he thinks it has to be done at the state level - because that's where Republicans have control. In actuality, the decision was made by the people, the people of Charlotte who voted to allow transgender people the option of using the bathroom of their choice. It was the state that stepped in and forced the people of North Carolina to use the bathroom of their gender at birth. It always amuses me that Republicans always talk about "local control", but as soon as the locals do anything the GOP doesn't like, the state steps in to override the will of the people.

Cameron Destroyed Libya; Now Blames Libyans

David Cameron resigned from Parliament earlier this week, leaving the Brexit mess behind for others to clean up. Sadly, the UK isn't the only country that Cameron managed to screw up and then abandon. A new report blames Cameron for the disaster that is now Libya. The blistering report accuses Cameron of going forward with the Libyan intervention with no intelligence analysis, changing the original limited military goal to one of regime change, shirking the moral responsibility to rebuild the country, and then losing interest in the project entirely. Cameron refused to be interviewed by the commission producing the report and, in a disgusting case of blaming the victims, said that the Libyan people deserve the blame because they failed to take their chance of democracy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Trump Reality Show Today - Part IV

After spending the last few days lambasting Hillary Clinton over her health and promising to release his own medical records, it turns out the Donald Trump was just feeding us more BS. The promise about releasing his medical records turned into a "discussion" of his medical records with Dr. Oz on his afternoon show. And we didn't even get that. Apparently what Trump produced at the show was a one-page summary of his last physical taken by that renowned quack, Dr. Harold Bornstein. This is the same doctor who wrote in a half-page memo that he scribbled in a taxi that Trump would be the healthiest President ever. The summary showed the data on Trump's cholesterol, blood pressure, prostate, and the date of his last colonoscopy. According to Dr. Oz, all were apparently normal.

So we have the normal release of tax returns and medical records from Hillary Clinton that all Presidential candidates have released pretty much since Watergate. And we have no tax returns and a one page summary of his latest physical for Donald Trump. And who's the one who is secretive and evasive?

Trump Reality Show Today - Part III

It looks like someone is finally getting around to investigating the Trump Foundation. After all, the foundation was recently fined for an illegal campaign contribution to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. And it was also recently revealed that most of the money in the foundation comes from people with business interests with Trump. Trump himself has not given any money to the foundation since 2008. It also appears that most of the foundation's giving goes to other charities associated with people that Trump has business interests with. In addition, the foundation has used money to purchase gifts for Trump, including a 6-foot high portrait of the Donald himself, as well as improperly reporting some donations. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced on Tuesday that his office has launched an inquiry into the Donald J. Trump Foundation in order to determine whether it is "complying with the laws governing charities in New York."

It is doubtful that the inquiry will have any results before election day, but you never know..

Trump Reality Show Today - Part II

After having spent the last few weeks desperately trying to find any kind of conflict of interest with Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, it appears that the media may have been looking in the wrong place all along. A Newsweek expose reveals the enormous conflicts of interest Donald Trump will have as President due to the wide range of business dealing of the Trump Organization throughout the world. The article describes Trump as being the "most conflicted President ever" if he were to win. The basic international effort of the Trump Organization is to lease the Trump "brand" to buildings being built around the world for a significant licensing fee. The business rarely puts any money into actual project - it merely licenses the Trump name. The Trump Organization has interests in South Korea, India, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, China, Brazil, Bulgaria, Argentina, Canada, France, and Germany. And that is not even a complete list. In many of these countries, the Trump organization has linked up with shady business partners, some of whom have even been convicted of crimes. In South Korea, the parent company of Trump's partner, Daewoo Group, collapsed in a $43 billion accounting fraud. Trump's partner in a building in India may have obtained the land for the building illegally. A partner in Turkey has been charged in a fuel smuggling scheme and a board member was outed as a tax evader in the Panama Papers. In Azerbaijan, Trump's partner is the son of the transportation minister who American diplomatic traffic leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010 considered a money-launderer for the Iranian military. The Trump Organization has even partnered with Muhammar Qaddafi of Libya back in 2008. Trump even offered to lease his estate in Westchester County, New York to Qaddafi in 2009. The plan was eventually scrapped because of local protests but, in typical Trump fashion, he apparently kept Qaddafi's money.

While the media have been calling for all the Clinton family to cut ties with the Clinton Foundation, or even just shut it down, we haven't heard a peep from the press about how Trump should insulate himself from the conflicts of interest that the Trump Organization presents. And, as the article, illustrates, it will be virtually impossible for Trump or the Trump family to separate themselves from the business in any reasonable way. Besides, Trump already knows the business interests and partners he has around the world. That knowledge can not just be ignored or erased. But it would at least be interesting if the press could simply ask Trump about these potential conflicts of interest and how he would deal with them.

One final note, it appears that Trump did not disclose a number of these foreign interests in the financial disclosure forms filed with the Federal Election Commission. Is this just another "oversight" or was Trump trying to hide these interests. Perhaps the media could look into that as well.

Unfortunately, the media's focus on the Clinton Foundation has already laid the groundwork for the old saw of "both sides are corrupt" when it comes to the revelations of these Trump conflicts of interests. But, as the Newsweek article points out, the Clintons receive nothing for their work in the Clinton Foundation. They are volunteers and every dime that comes into the Clinton Foundation is accounted for and transparent through their required charitable filings. On the other hand, Donald Trump and all his family receive significant incomes from the Trump Organization and the sources of the money that flows into the Organization are also opaque. The two can not even be compared. Please read the whole article because it really gives you an idea of who Donald Trump will do business with and what kind of man he really is.

Trump Reality Show Today - Part I

Donald Trump, under obvious prodding from his daughter Ivanka, has actually released a policy proposal. The two-pronged proposal covers paid maternity leave and tax credits for child care. As far as I can make out, the maternity leave proposal simply offers unemployment benefits to mothers during the six weeks that the plan provides for. In addition, the plan provides for an income tax deduction for care of up to four dependents. The tax credit would apply to incomes as high as $250,000 for an individual and $500,000 for a family. Note that it is an income tax credit. For those families who are on the low end of the income scale, there will be spending rebates of $1,200 per year. Unfortunately, for those receiving the rebate, that $1,200 will only cover about one month's worth of child care as the annual cost can run as high as $20,000. And for those receiving the tax credit, they will only get that once a year whereas the cost of child care is continual throughout the year.

Since this is a Trump proposal, there was really nothing in the plan that showed how these benefits might be paid for. According to the plan, the maternity leave proposal would be paid for by eliminating waste and fraud in the unemployment insurance program. That really means they have no plan to pay for it. And there was nothing about how these child care tax breaks would be paid for. This is pretty much standard procedure for Trump - from his tax plan to building the wall, there is never any serious detail on how it will all be paid for. Perhaps it will all be paid for by the numerous donations to the Trump Foundation in order to curry favor with the Donald.

In his speech outlining these plans, there was once again another bald-faced lie as he accused Hillary of not having a plan for family leave and child care and saying she "never will". Of course, Hillary has had detailed plans for both along with how the benefits would be paid for months, outlined on her website but also in her campaign appearances. But no speech is ever complete without at least one whopper of a lie or, as the NY Times euphemistically calls it, "stretching the truth". The true target of this plan is really wealthy, educated, white women who will benefit the most from the child care tax break. It is a demographic that Trump is getting killed in and, if he has any chance to win the election, he needs to improve his standing with these voters.

For Republicans in general, Trump's plan is a significant break with the party's usual position. For most Republicans, paid family leave is an unwelcome burden on employers. So it is good to see that the nominees of both parties are both now on record as supporting it. Whether the Republican party will fall in line remains to be seen.

A Rare Trifecta For All American Workers

In a trifecta for American workers that has not occurred since the height of the (Bill) Clinton economic boom in 1999, median income rose by a hefty 5.2%, the uninsured rate dropped by 1.3%, and the poverty rate fell by that same 1.3% in 2015.

Median household income rose to $56,500, a gain of $2,800, which is the largest increase since the survey began in 1967. A stronger labor market was the primary driver for increased income as the unemployment rate in 2015 averaged 5.3%. Importantly, the income gains were strong across all income levels, not just at the top as they had been since the recovery began in 2009.

However, even with this substantial increase, median household income is still 1.6% below its 2007 levels before the Great Recession began and 2.4% below its all-time peak back in the good old days of 1999.

The 1.3% decline in poverty represents some 3.5 million people in households whose income finally moved above the poverty line. This was the largest decline in poverty since 1968, almost 50 years. Notably, the poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics is now back to its pre-recession levels. Again, this is the result of an improving and tighter labor market which always benefits minority workers. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, another survey that takes into account the cash value of nutritional programs, Earned Income Tax Credit, and other automatic stabilizers, fell by around 1% to just over 14%. Since the "War on Poverty" began in the 1960s, this measure has fallen by nearly half from its high of 26%.

Finally, another 4 million more people received health insurance in 2015, in increase of 1.3% that dropped the uninsured rate below 10%. Obamacare, or the ACA, is the primary reason for this drop, reducing uninsured by 7% from the 16% in place at its inception. That represents about 18 million additional people who now have health insurance. Of course, the number of uninsured could easily come down even further if those states that continue to refuse the federal money for Medicaid expansion finally turned around and accepted it. As Kevin Drum points out, those states refusing Medicaid expansion reflect a certain region of the country:

The combination of a stronger economy, low inflation, and public policies on health and poverty have made this trifecta possible. Middle and lower income Americans are seeing their paychecks go up. More people are moving out of poverty and fewer people do not have health care insurance. We are finally beginning to see people other than the top 1% crawling out of the hole created by the financial crisis and the resulting recession. Now is not the time to change course with a racist xenophobe like Donald Trump. And it is certainly not the time for the Fed to raise rates and slow the economy down just as middle and lower income Americans are starting to see some benefit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Obama Goes After The Media Over Its False Equivalence

In his speech in Philadelphia today, Obama also went after the media in a big way. Admitting he was venting a little, he said, "You want to debate transparency. You have one candidate in this debate whose released decades' worth of her tax returns. The other candidate is the first in decades who refuses to release any at all. You want to debate foundations and charities? One candidate's family foundation has saved countless lives around the world. The other candidate's foundation took money other people gave to his charity and then bought a six-foot tall painting of himself...One candidate who’s traveled to more countries than any secretary of state ever has, has more qualifications than pretty much anyone who’s ever run for this job and the other who isn’t fit in any way, shape, or form to represent this country abroad and be its commander-in-chief." As usual, Obama makes the case in as clear and concise way as you possible can. You can see the whole speech here.

Obama Goes To Bat For Clinton

It is great to see President Obama out on the campaign trail, fighting for Hillary and Democrats. With his popularity close to 60% these days, he is a credible voice for Democrats and he knows how to go after Trump and link the Republican party to their nominee. Today, he was in Philadelphia where he went after Trump for his affection for Vladimir Putin, saying, "Think about what’s happening to the Republican Party. They used to be opposed to Russia and authoritarianism... And now their nominee is out there praising a guy, saying he’s a strong leader because he invades smaller countries, jails his opponents, controls the press and drives his economy into a long recession...Can you imagine Ronald Reagan idolizing somebody like that?" Hopefully, we will see plenty more of him between now and election day.

Fiancial Fees Decimate Chile's Private Pension System

Back when George Bush was trying to privatize Social Security, Chile got a lot of press for its "successful" private pension plan. The plan was implemented in 1981 and only now are a significant number of Chileans reaching the point when they have to start relying on that pension as they retire. And the results are shockingly bad. The plan only has a net return of a paltry 3% after 35 years. But the reason for this exceedingly poor performance is hardly unexpected - inordinately high fees to the pension managers is the primary reason. The actual investment returns were around 8% but management fees diluted that to the pitiful 3%. The larcenous fees were essentially legalized theft from the citizens of Chile. Once again, a government allows financial services to fleece an unsuspecting public out of billions that they worked hard for and were required to by law to turn over to be managed.

More NY Times Failures

I've already mentioned the overkill of coverage in the Times today over Hillary's walking pneumonia. But I'd also like to point to the coverage of Hillary's "basket of deplorables" remark not only in the Times but throughout the mainstream media as well. Clinton was roundly criticized for the remarks and, although she backed away from using the word "half" subsequently, she did stick by her point that Trump's campaign has enabled racist and xenophobic elements in the country. By the time of her retraction, however, the coverage was mainly focused on whether the comment would hurt her in the horse-race coverage of the election.

But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, there was never any serious reporting on whether Clinton's statement was actually true. In fact, some turned the tables on Clinton, calling her remarks bigoted. But the numbers do not lie - among Trump supporters, polls show 76% support a ban on all Muslims entering the country; 60% hold negative views of Islam; 40% believe that blacks are lazier, more violent, and more criminal than whites; over 60% believe that Barack Obama is not an American. In fact, Hillary was probably understating the case when she said "half". But there was virtually no exploration in the mainstream press that explored that angle of the story. In fact, it was an immediate rejection of a comment that calls 20% of the electorate racist and xenophobic simply because that should not be mentioned in polite society. The fact that it is apparently true has no bearing and requires no investigation. Meanwhile, Mike Pence goes on TV yesterday and refuses to denounce former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke, saying "I'm not in the name-calling business". It was just another clear example of the Trump campaign playing to the racists and xenophobes that support them. But you won't read about it in today's Times and, in fact, the only mention of it at all on the Times' website today is merely a short AP wrapup where Pence once again today refused to denounce Duke. How pathetic.

Finally, one last bash of the Times today. They finally got around to reporting on the outrageous fraud that was conducted at Wells Fargo over a five year period. Over 5,300 employees were fired over this fraud and it is clear that elements of senior management had to know what was going on. But the headline of the front page of the business section in the Times paper edition today reads, "The Brazen Sham No One Noticed". That certainly gives the impression that no one knew the fraud was going on. However, when you follow the story to page B6, the headline now reads "Pervasive Sham At Wells Fargo, And No One Happened To Notice?" Gee, that question mark seems to imply that perhaps it was willful ignorance that allowed the fraud to continue. Too bad the editors couldn't have added that question mark to the headline on B1 that most people see. There was plenty of room for it in the headline and it would have given the proper impression. But so it goes at the "newspaper of record".

Hillary's Health

I've been asked by an avid reader why I haven't written anything about the Hillary health scare. I guess that's because, just like Kevin Drum, I figure this is just a pretty simple case of someone overworked and coming down with an illness that is very easily treated. Hillary is crisscrossing the country (and we all know how fresh and healthy airplane air is), meeting with thousands of people, shaking hands with hundreds, so it is hardly surprising that she got sick. Of course, anytime a President or a Presidential candidate gets ill, it is a source for concern. But this is not a serious, life threatening illness not is it a sign of chronic condition.

Now you can say that perhaps the Hillary campaign should have been slightly more forthcoming that she had pneumonia, but that diagnosis did not occur until Friday. And, if you know anything about Hillary Clinton from her time as Senator from New York, you know damn well she was not going to miss the 9/11 service on Sunday. In addition to honoring those lost, she has been relentless in her support of the first responders whose health was compromised by the lies from the Bush administration about the air quality at the WTC. In fact, I'm surprised that the campaign hasn't pointed that out more forcefully. Of course, the press would then accuse Hillary of trying to use 9/11 to cover for her health problems.

The overkill from the media on this story is simply mind-boggling. Today, the NY Times has four stories and two editorials related to Hillary's illness. And, of course, the cable news channels are all having a field day. About the only thing we haven't heard about her illness is that it just goes to prove a woman can't handle the job of being President, although I'm sure it's been said or written somewhere - we just haven't heard about it. Frankly, it is all a tempest in a teapot. Most every voter has felt the need to go to work when they were clearly not well and their will be another shiny object to catch the media's attention in another few days. Perhaps the most perceptive remark on this whole subject has come from Gabe Ortiz:

Monday, September 12, 2016

NYT Public Editor Utterly Fails In Her Defense Of Clinton Coverage

The New York Times Public Editor, Liz Spayd, wrote a piece over the weekend in which she attempts to defend her newspaper against the accusations of creating a false equivalence with its excessive focus on the Clinton Foundation that has yet to turn up any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, her response even raises more questions about the Times' coverage of the upcoming election. Spayd presents the idea of false equivalence as meaning that they feel a need to go after Hillary a bit harder in order to balance out all the outrageous positions and statements that Trump makes. She defends the paper by saying, "The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates. Take one example. Suppose journalists deem Clinton’s use of private email servers a minor offense compared with Trump inciting Russia to influence an American election by hacking into computers — remember that? Is the next step for a paternalistic media to barely cover Clinton’s email so that the public isn’t confused about what’s more important? Should her email saga be covered at all? It’s a slippery slope."

Of course, no one is suggesting that the Times should not be investigating Hillary's emails or that they should not be looking into the activities of the Clinton Foundation. The problem is that their reporting intimates that something improper was going on with the Foundation while at the same time admitting that the reporters found no wrongdoing. And, in fact, Spayd readily admits to that just three paragraphs later, writing, "On the other hand, some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did. That’s not good journalism. But I suspect the explanation lies less with making matchy-matchy comparisons of the two candidates’ records than with journalists losing perspective on a line of reporting they’re heavily invested in." For Spayd, then, the flawed reporting on the Clinton Foundation isn't a problem of false equivalence. It is a problem that the journalists were too invested in their stories and wrote misleading stories. Ergo, there is no false equivalence issue.

Spayd then goes on to impugn the motives of those who have criticized the Times about their "not good journalism", to use Spayd's own words, by saying, "I can’t help wondering about the ideological motives of those crying false balance, given that they are using the argument mostly in support of liberal causes and candidates." Well that might be because liberals have seen this movie before with the Clintons. As Spayd notes in her article, one of the big reasons the Times has become a target for this criticism is because of its aggressive coverage going back to Whitewater, the non-scandal that the Times most whole-heartedly took mainstream.

Spayd then goes on to make the point that, again, no one is disagreeing with and that is that both candidates need to be looked at with "forceful, honest reporting — as The Times has produced about conflicts circling the foundation; and as The Washington Post did this past week in surfacing Trump’s violation of tax laws when he made a $25,000 political contribution to a campaign group connected to Florida’s attorney general as her office was investigating Trump University." Of course there are two big problems for the Times with this statement. First, Spayd has already admitted that some of the paper's Clinton Foundation stories were not honest but bad journalism. And second, she mentions the real scandal at a charity and it was the political contribution from the Trump Foundation. It is not so much that the Washington Post broke that story. It is the fact that it took the Times over four days to include it in what they lovingly refer to as the "newspaper of record".  And it was that delay more than anything that really got the Times' critics up in arms.

Spayd's defense of the paper has so may holes and so many admissions of error, both explicit and implicit, that you wonder why she wrote it all. All it does is confirm to many people that, when it comes to the Clintons, the Times has lost all perspective.

Owen Smith Does Not Understand The First Lesson Of The Financial Crisis

If Owen Smith is supposed to be the savior of the Labour Party in the UK, I'm afraid the party is in pretty bad shape. The Labour Party establishment is desperately trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn who remains quite popular with rank and file members. And the establishment is probably right in thinking that Corbyn can never win an election. But the chances of Owen Smith being able to unseat Corbyn are probably pretty slim too, especially after his latest idea about staying in the EU. Asked about what Labour would do if they win the scheduled 2020 election and the UK had already left the EU, Smith responded that the UK could ask to rejoin the EU and even adopt the Euro if that were necessary for re-admission. Does Mr. Smith not understand that the reason the UK was able to recover from the financial crisis in spite of Cameron's unnecessary austerity is because they had their own currency? Does he not understand that the reason Greece, Spain, Portugal, and, yes, even Ireland are still struggling so much even these many years after the crisis is because they are bound to the Euro and have no way to devalue their currency to become more competitive? The central lesson from the financial crisis is that the countries with their own currency have recovered far more quickly than those that did not, specifically those members of the Euro. The fact that he doesn't seem to understand even that should be enough to disqualify him from the leadership.

David Cameron Resigns From Parliament

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned his seat in Parliament effective immediately, triggering a new by-election in his Witney constituency. Having led the country into the abyss with his gamble on Brexit, Cameron will happily ride off into the sunset and leave others to deal with the mess he has left behind. Perhaps he can get some hints from Tony Blair about how to move on in life after screwing the country you're supposed to be leading.

McConnell May Just Dump Budget Mess On Ryan

Mitch McConnell may have decided to just get out of town and let Paul Ryan deal with the mess he leaves behind. After the obligatory votes on Obamacare this week, it looks like McConnell may just pass a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government only until December, which is exactly what Harry Reid and the Democrats have been demanding. Then he will simply adjourn and let his struggling members focus on their re-election efforts and keep McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. That would leave poor Paul Ryan to have to deal with his recalcitrant Freedom Caucus in order to pass that CR and keep the government from shutting down.

House Republicans have seen that game before and they are afraid that any deal made during the lame duck session after the election will result in higher spending and bigger government as the budget gets loaded up with perks for individual members who may no longer be accountable to the electorate. Even worse, there is a fear that Ryan may actually cut a deal with the Democrats in order to pass the budget in the House, doing an end-run around the Freedom Caucus. And here is what one of those Freedom Caucus leaders, Tim Huelskamp, had to say about that: "It's leadership's fault. They decided not to move appropriations bills through so here we are in September having to do a CR. Why? Don't forget it's because they didn't do the full appropriations. It's what Boehner did. What's the difference?...I think Reid and Ryan have already worked out a deal that we all go home and Obama wins again and we are going to abdicate our power of the purse...Trust is built over a series of promises kept, and we are still trying to figure out what promises were kept, but we are very worried about a lame duck because what we saw under Speaker Boehner and what we fear under Speaker Ryan they are going to come back and do things the American people don't want to do."

So far, Paul Ryan does not appear to be doing any better than John Boehner in keeping those 40 to 60 Republicans that make up the Freedom Caucus, a group that seems unwilling and unable to make the necessary compromises to actually govern, happy. And when they start saying there is no difference between Boehner and Ryan, then you know there will be some sort of leadership challenge for Speaker of the House next year. And if Democrats cut into the GOP House majority this November, Ryan's margin becomes razor thin, especially as those seats would have probably been occupied by moderate Republicans. At times, Ryan really must wonder why he took the job at all.

Indicators Of Strong GDP Growth Fuel Rate Hike Fears

Equity markets in the US sold off heavily on Friday as recently released indicators of third quarter GDP continued to climb. The forecasts currently range from 2.8% to 3.5% and this stronger GDP growth is fueling speculation that the Federal Reserve will start raising interest rates sooner rather than later. Rising interest rates make stocks a less attractive investment. Of course, one strong quarter of strong GDP growth will hardly offset the anemic growth we saw in the first half of the year. And 3% is hardly the sign of an overheating economy, especially after the last eight years of a struggling economy. But the hawks in the Fed seem determined to raise rates although it is hard to see what their motivations might be. Some are living permanently in the 1970s and see runaway inflation around every corner. Others, perhaps, might want to move rates slowly back to normal simply to have the ability to cut rates when the next slowdown hits. But until we see a few quarters of strong GDP growth in a row and inflation starts moving above the Fed target of 2%, it is hard to make a real case for a rate hike. The next Fed meeting is a few days away and I think they will hold rates steady with a number if dissensions. There is a political calculus in play this month even if the Fed does not want to admit it. If they raise rates and the economy tanks before the election, they will be held responsible. If they do hold rates steady this month and growth and employment continue to be strong, then you can be sure rates will go up when they next meet in December.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

US Open Recap

The US Open ended earlier this evening when Stan Wawrinka upset Novak Djokovic in four sets, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3. It was a kind of a weird match as Djokovic came out and thoroughly dominated the early part of the first set and looked on his way to an easy first set win, when all of a sudden Wawrinka found his game and got back in the set, forcing a tiebreaker. But Djokovic regained his composure and held Wawrinka to just one point to win the set. A pattern began to emerge in the second set and that carried over into the third as well. Wawrinka would struggle mightily to hold and then break Djokovic to take an early lead in the set. Djokovic would have multiple chances to get the break back but could never seem to convert. But eventually he finally does and gets the set back on serve only to trade even more breaks before being broken again to lose the set. The pattern continued into the fourth set, but this time it was clear that Djokovic was cramping when Wawrinka went up 3-0. Djokovic held his serve and then called a bogus medical timeout to have "blisters" on his toes attended to and was able to rehydrate and refuel during the 6 minute break. Novak called the trainer again for the same "injury" when Wawrinka was getting ready to serve for the match. But despite numerous break opportunities, Djokovic could not get the break back and Wawrinka finally held his serve to win the match.  Djokovic will be bitterly disappointed by this loss. Besides being a weird match, it was also a weird tournament for Novak. He had one match that was defaulted and one match where his opponent retired in the first set. He clearly was not at his best and you could see he had a fitness problem even in his semifinal win against Gael Monfils. But he had so many break opportunities in this match that he was not able to convert - he was an abysmal 3 for 17. He will definitely look at this as one that got away.

In the women's final, Angelique Kerber beat the surprise of the tournament, Karolina Pliskova, who upset Serena Williams, to win the title in three sets, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. As might be expected from someone in their first Grand Slam final, Pliskova had a nervous start and Kerber was able to get ahead early and take the first set 6-3. But Pliskova settled down and found her game and began to overpower Kerber in the second, and Kerber's patented forehand down the line seemed to desert her. Pliskova got an early break in the third and looked to be in control. But Kerber got her forehand in gear again and played her usual strong defense, getting enough balls back to force Pliskova to win the points. Eventually, Pliskova could just not handle the pressure, giving the break back and then getting broken again at 4-5 to lose the match.

Kerber finishes an incredible season where she won the Australian and US Opens and reached the finals at Wimbledon. And she has now supplanted Serena Williams as the number one player in the world. All this from someone who just a year ago felt she had lost her game and was totally adrift. She brought back her old coach and got a boost of confidence from Steffi Graf and then had one of the great seasons in tennis.

You have to wonder if this year in tennis represents the changing of the guard. For the first time since 2004, neither Roger Federer nor Andy Murray nor Rafa Nadal reached the semifinal of a major here at the US Open. Novak Djokovic looked like he might be on his way to the calendar Grand Slam when he completed the career Grand Slam by winning the French. But he clearly could not maintain his level and was beaten by lesser players at Wimbledon, the Olympics, and here at the Open. He just does not look like the dominant player he was earlier in the year. He clearly has a physical problem or problems but he is also 29 now and the grind of the grueling schedule in tennis may finally be wearing him down. On the women's side, it looks like there are more and more women who step onto the court thinking they can really beat Serena Williams. Serena lost in the finals of the Australian and the French, won Wimbledon, had a shocking early loss at the Olympics, and was overpowered by Pliskova at the US Open. That is hardly a bad year, but it is not the dominant Serena we are used to seeing. And like Djokovic, she was also clearly battling injuries. But Serena is 34 now and the injuries take a little longer to heal and she is just that half a step slower.

It all makes for a fascinating season next year. It will be interesting to see if the old-timers can regain their mojo and keep on dominating the tour like they have for nearly the last decade and a half. Or will the new young guns, and there are plenty of them, finally be able to assert themselves. Sadly, we will probably have to wait for the year-end championships and the Australian Open to begin to find out.

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