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Longwood Gardens. Photo by joanneleon. January, 2013

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Les Misérables Soundtrack - Stars (Russell Crowe)

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Kind of shocking to see this in the Washington Post.

A tax deal only the ultra-rich could love

How much do the newly enacted tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans actually affect them? Hardly at all.

Almost all of the debate that convulsed Capitol Hill in December concerned the reinstatement of the highest marginal tax rate on earned income — that is, on wages and salaries. But as Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me, and one of the primary ways they’re different is that they don’t get their income from wages and salaries.
[...]
This shift from wages to profits is called redistribution. It is the central fact of American economic life. And it is the primary reason that economic inequality in the United States has skyrocketed.

Yet wages, which are descending, are taxed at a higher rate than income derived from corporate profits — capital gains and dividends. Far from mitigating the consequences of this shift, the U.S. tax code reinforces the redistribution from wages to profits. Broadly speaking, it rewards the winners of this epochal shift and penalizes the losers, who are the vast majority of Americans.

The lower tax rates for capital gains and dividends, then, effectively reward offshoring more than work done within the United States, increase economic inequality and deprive the federal government of revenue it will need to support an aging population and meet its other obligations. None of this upsets Republicans, but it would be nice if Democrats realized that these tax breaks undermine everything they stand for.

The Inside Story of How Obama Could Have Gotten a Better Tax Deal Without Biden

Here’s what happened near the end of the cliff talks, as I understand it. On Friday, December 28, Obama handed off the negotiations to Reid and McConnell, with the caveat that he wanted a vote on a fallback plan to raise taxes on income above $250,000 for couples (and $200,000 for individuals) if they couldn’t strike a deal by Monday the 31st. The two Senate leaders made some progress but hit a wall Saturday afternoon. Reid had offered to move the threshold up to $450,000 for couples and $360,000 for individuals in exchange for a one-year extension of federal unemployment benefits and delaying the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester for a year. McConnell was unwilling to go so low on the income-tax threshold or so long on the sequester delay. He was also asking for a change to Social Security’s cost of living adjustment—a fairly significant benefit cut. After huddling with his staff late Sunday morning, Reid told McConnell he had no more concessions to give.

Not long after, McConnell went to the Senate floor saying he had placed a call to Biden but hadn’t heard back. Sunday night, Reid’s staff went to bed aware that Biden had returned McConnell’s call but assuming nothing would come of it. “There was no indication [Biden] would engage,” says a Senate Democratic leadership aide close to the talks. Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Reid’s staff woke up Monday morning to discover that Biden had opened up his own negotiation with McConnell. [...]

Reid was furious. In a call, he told the president that he or Biden would have to come to the Senate and pitch the deal to Democrats themselves--Reid wanted no part of it himself. But while other accounts have portrayed Reid’s frustration as stemming from the substance of the deal, Reid was just as frustrated over the fact that he'd been in the middle of executing his own plan, which was now moot.

According to the Senate aide, Reid believed that one of two things would happen if the negotiations were allowed to play out his way: Either McConnell, who obviously wanted a deal, would have come slinking back to him and basically accepted Reid’s last offer. “It would have been great if he called Biden and no one called him back,” says the leadership aide. “He would be so desperate for a deal that he took whatever he could get.” Or, less likely, McConnell would have thrown in the towel, allowing Reid to hold a vote on the Democratic fallback bill, which would have moved the income threshold back to $250,000 while extending unemployment insurance and a series of tax credits for the poor and middle class.

[...]

Long story short: Reid’s strategy would have at worst produced a slightly better deal than Biden negotiated had McConnell accepted his final offer before the cliff (a slightly lower threshold for the new top income tax rate and a one-year suspension of the sequester rather than a two-month suspension). At best it could have produced significantly more revenue (closer to a $300,000 threshold) had we briefly gone over. But Reid never got the chance to execute it. “Their guys were running around asking to be forced to vote for this so they could move on,” says the Senate aide of the GOP. “Everything Republicans were doing signaled weakness and desperation for a deal. Unfortunately, everything out of the White House did, too.”

An article from September, 2010.  Jack Lew says deregulation didn't cause the crash.  And this guy "will also be the head of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a new group of regulators charged with preventing the next crisis. " Hat tip Felix Salmon.  Note how much they are playing down his Wall Street ties today, and contrast it with this article from two years ago.
Jacob Lew, Obama Nominee And Former Citigroup Executive, Doesn't Believe Deregulation Led To Financial Crisis

A former top executive at Citigroup who participated in the deregulation of Wall Street during the Clinton administration and recently was tapped by President Barack Obama for a top White House post told a Senate panel last week that deregulation didn't lead to the recent financial crisis.

Jacob "Jack" Lew, Obama's nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the White House agency entrusted with ensuring that federal regulations reflect the president's agenda, was asked Thursday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee by Sen. Bernie Sanders whether he believed that the "deregulation of Wall Street, pushed by people like Alan Greenspan [and] Robert Rubin, contributed significantly to the disaster we saw on Wall Street."

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that "the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation," and after discussing those issues, added that he didn't "personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don't believe that deregulation was the proximate cause."

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Lew, however, doesn't appear to agree, putting him at odds with an administration and a party that tout their efforts at re-regulating Wall Street in pitches to voters and cast blame for the crisis in part on the deregulatory policies pursued by Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress.

Why the EU crisis has a lot in common with Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme

Bernie Madoff and the European Union have a lot more in common than you might think. In the private sector, when someone assumes new loans to cover earlier losses but still claims the money is well-invested it’s called fraud. All of the problems will be taken care of “in the future,” the same vaguely outlined future in which investors can expect handsome rewards. In the public sector it’s called a debt crisis.

Precisely such a mess is brewing right now within the EU. The main difference is that the situation is much graver than in any corporate house of cards since so many more stakeholders are involved: every single EU citizen. Across Europe, overly indebted households, overly indebted banks and overly indebted states have been able to avoid the consequences of self-inflicted recklessness for years. This recklessness is of a scale that lacks historical comparison except perhaps to the lending practices of the war-prone monarchs during the preparliamentary age of absolutism, but that only extends to the state level.

HSBC’s record $1.9 billion money-laundering fine is the bank equivalent of a stiff speeding ticket

HSBC, the London-based bank that is one of the largest financial institutions in the globe, is expected to pay a settlement of almost $1.9 billion to settle charges that it facilitated money laundering and financial transfers for corrupt officials, terrorists and drug cartels through its US subsidiary.

The settlement would be a record, but we thought it would help to put the payout—nearly $1.3 billion as part of a deferred-prosecution agreement, and a further $650 million or more as a civil fine—in perspective.

[...]

How fast would you need drive to get a speeding ticket of that magnitude in the state? Guidelines for fines vary, but you need to be at least 31 mph over the speed limit to get a $600 ticket. If it was your third offense, you’d be charged up to $375 more, bringing the total up to $975. Add in the $70 fee for any moving violation and, if you’ve accumulated demerits on your licence because of past violations (like the two previous speeding tickets) you’ll pay another $300, bringing you in range of an HSBC-style penalty.

Of course, a multiple offender going 31 mph over the speed limit is likely to spend a few days in jail, or at least do some community service. No one from HSBC will spend time behind bars as a result of this investigation.

Jim (author) also reiterates his earlier prediction that the chances of the US keeping the promise to train 350K Afghan forces are slim.
Zero Option on Table as Karzai Comes to Washington

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for a visit that culminates on Friday in a meeting with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also meets with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday. As I described in November, the US and Afghanistan are negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement that lays out the ground rules for any US troops that remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014. As was the case with the SOFA for Iraq, the key sticking point will be whether US troops are given full criminal immunity. When Iraq refused to grant immunity, the US abruptly withdrew the forces that had been meant to stay behind.

Both the Washington Post and New York Times have prominently placed articles this morning couching the options on the number of troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 in terms of strategy for achieving US “goals” there, but the options described now include the “zero option” of leaving no troops behind after 2014. Unlike the case in negotiating the SOFA with Iraq, it appears that at least some of the folks in Washington understand this time that the US is not likely to get full immunity for its troops with Afghanistan, and so there should be some planning for that outcome. Both articles openly discuss the real possibility of a zero option with no troops remaining in the country, although the Times actually suggests full withdrawal in the article’s title (“U.S. Is Open to Withdraw Afghan Force After 2014″) and the Post hangs onto hope of several thousand troops remaining with its title (“Some in administration push for only a few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014″).

Failure of Current TV - Gore Wouldn't Take on Bush

Robert Parry: Current TV could have played a critical role taking on the Bush presidency, instead it followed a confused "youth" strategy

'CIA turns into military force, targets countries it's not at war with'
The US Senate is considering President Obama's picks to lead the Pentagon and the CIA. The candidate for the post of Spy Chief, presidential counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, is a strong advocate of aggressive CIA tactics, and has secured a controversial drone programme as one of the agency's main tools. Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury thinks if Brennan is confirmed as the CIA head, the agency will further expand its powers.
"I think that what you see here is the movement of the CIA away from being an intelligence agency toward being a police agency and a military force.  The CIA that I knew is supposed a gatherer of intelligence. It was largely academics, scholars trying to figure out what other countries have been doing and they had a few spies on the ground in certain locations.  Now it's engaged in military activities.     I don't know of any law that allowed this transition.  It's just something that's happening under the aegis of the executive branch.  So when you have an intelligence agency become a military force, a police force, a worldwide police force and it's involved in activities that are clearly illegal, the United States, or Washington attacks the populations of countries at which it is not at war by sending in drones to kill people.  The legality of this is unknown. But John Brennan has defended it. He said it's legal, moral, and yet we don't really know who these people are that they're killing."

[...]

"Well it will continue to be aggressive and a drive for hegemony.  They hope to leave in place puppets or at least people who can be bought.  But what is happening is that the War on Terror is becoming more and more directed at the American population.  It's the American population that's being spied on around the clock.  We now have drones flying here domestically, even the local police forces are getting drones and it's a complete difference from conducting war against alleged terrorists overseas.   All of this is coming home here -- the spying, the drones and the unaccountability of these growing police agencies so it's hard to say what would be the result but clearly there's not going to be accountability."

Joe Biden, NRA Meeting On Gun Violence

Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading an administration-wide review of gun safety laws, has vowed urgent action in the wake of last month's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

The meeting with the NRA is one of three Biden has scheduled for Thursday, as he prepares to make recommendations on gun policy by the end of the month. Besides the NRA, Biden and other officials are meeting with sportsmen and wildlife interest groups, as well as people from the entertainment industry.

A third way in gun debate

With about 280 million guns in the country and counting, we have to tap into our inventive and competitive strengths to protect our most vulnerable spaces. When we have recognized a major national security risk in the past, we have shown the ability to muster the scientific and financial resources to do so - from computer viruses to disable Iran's nuclear program to the Patriot system shielding the nation against missile attacks. Why not make sure semiautomatic weapons in the wrong hands are equally neutralized?

How could we explore new ways to do so? We could look to the federal government to assess promising technological solutions, but that could prove costly, time-consuming, and possibly ineffective.

A better option would be to engage the private sector, with sponsorship by both the public and private sectors. The incentive for participants would be that likely solutions would be assured significant public and private financing. And a constructive, competitive environment could stimulate the new thinking we need. In essence, this would be a marketplace of ideas to address a national security problem.

I assume this means 5:38 a.m. Pacific, so just about 10 minutes after this post publishes.
Oscars 2013: Watch the Academy Award nominations live Thursday

The nominations for the 2013 Academy Awards will be announced Thursday morning at precisely 5:38 a.m. and 30 seconds (yes, it's that precise). You can watch Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone announce the Oscar nominations live above.

Twitter just told us how cool its real-time search is… and how it makes its money
Human computation solves problems that make algorithms stumble, and matches trending topics to relevant advertising

Like Bitly, Twitter has a great real-time data set and very smart data scientists and engineers. But instead of relying on a primarily computational solution, Twitter treats real-time search more like a CAPTCHA problem. With this kind of messy data, lots of human brains can find meaning much faster and more accurately than lots of lines of code. So Twitter uses a real-time computation system called Storm to identify search spikes, then Mechanical Turk (Amazon's crowdsourcing online platform for small jobs) to farm out annotating that data to human beings all over the world. The annotations basically take the spiking search term and tag it for relevance and intent. A human annotator (Twitter calls them "judges") can tell Twitter's systems whether searches for "Stanford" refer to a university or to its football team, or that searches for "Big Bird" aren't primarily referencing a children's show, but a political debate. This helps Twitter make trending topics smarter and more coherent.






Blog Posts and Tweets of Interest


Evening Blues












Les Misérables Soundtrack - I Dreamed a Dream (Anne Hathaway)





Debate

Remember when progressive debate was about our values and not about a "progressive" candidate? Remember when progressive websites championed progressive values and didn't tell progressives to shut up about values so that "progressive" candidates can get elected?

Come to where the debate is not constrained by oaths of fealty to persons or parties.

Come to where the pie is served in a variety of flavors.

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum."  ~ Noam Chomsky

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