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Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks during an event on Feb. 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Rumsfeld seems confused about the purpose of the IRS

04/18/16 04:58PM

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently takes a degree of pleasure in sending an annual letter to the Internal Revenue Service. Today, he offered his latest installment in the series.
"Once again, I have mailed in our federal income tax and gift tax filings for 2015, and have requested an extension due to the delays in materials required to complete our tax return.
 
"Despite having performed this civic duty for over half a century, at the concluding of filing this year's taxes, I remain mystified as to whether or not our tax returns and tax payment estimates are accurate. The possession of a college degree, retention of an experienced tax accounting firm, and earnest application have failed to provide confidence that my returns and payments are properly completed."
Rumsfeld goes on to insist the millions of Americans find the annual tax-filing process complicated, and in his mind, "A fundamental and annual civic duty should not be so laborious and costly for the average American."
 
He concludes by dreaming of the day in which the government "radically simplifies the tax code," possibly with a "flat tax."
 
Let's skip over the fact that a flat tax is a horrible idea. Let's also overlook the fact that Rumsfeld is under the mistaken impression that it's charming for people to write angry missives to the IRS about what the government ought to be doing.
 
Let's instead focus on the core problem here: Rumsfeld, who spent much of his lengthy career in government, seems confused about what the IRS does.
An Affordable Healthcare Act supporter (R) talks with a student (L) about the law on the campus of Santa Monica City College in Santa Monica, California, October 10, 2013.

'Obamacare' delivers a big boost to those who need it most

04/18/16 04:13PM

When it comes to evaluating the Affordable Care Act's successes, one of the key metrics is pretty straightforward: "Obamacare" is lowering the uninsured rate to the lowest levels on record, bringing coverage to people who didn't have it. But it turns out there's an even more detailed way to consider this measurement.
 
The New York Times, relying largely on Census data, published a fascinating report on which American constituencies have seen the sharpest improvements thanks to the reform law, and the results point to an important angle for the larger political debate.
The first full year of the Affordable Care Act brought historic increases in coverage for low-wage workers and others who have long been left out of the health care system, a New York Times analysis has found. Immigrants of all backgrounds -- including more than a million legal residents who are not citizens -- had the sharpest rise in coverage rates.
 
Hispanics, a coveted group of voters this election year, accounted for nearly a third of the increase in adults with insurance. That was the single largest share of any racial or ethnic group, far greater than their 17 percent share of the population. Low-wage workers, who did not have enough clout in the labor market to demand insurance, saw sharp increases. Coverage rates jumped for cooks, dishwashers, waiters, as well as for hairdressers and cashiers. Minorities, who disproportionately worked in low-wage jobs, had large gains.
In other words, struggling, low-wage workers, who tend to have the least amount of political capital, have seen the biggest gains. While there's been progress among every demographic since the ACA was implemented, the Times analysis found that the reform law has narrowed "the gap between the haves and the have-nots," even while income inequality has gotten worse overall.
 
One of the interesting things to keep in mind is that the left and right don't necessarily have to disagree on these basic factual details, and can instead argue about whether or not the developments are worth bragging about.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Photo by David Becker/AP)

Which states best represent Democratic politics?

04/18/16 02:37PM

Bernie Sanders has faced some criticism in recent weeks over his campaign's willingness to downplay the results from Southern primaries. The region, Sanders said last week, "kind of distorts reality."
 
The Vermont senator was asked about this in last week's debate, and Sanders focused on the region's ideology. "Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true: Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South," he said. "No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country."
 
There are two central questions here. First, did Sanders lose in the South because voters in the region are more conservative? And second, if Southern states aren't representative of Democratic politics in general, which are?
 
On the first question, Sanders' case has run into some trouble. While conservatives obviously tend to fare well in Southern elections, there's little evidence that Democrats in the South are significantly more conservative than in other red states like Utah, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Idaho -- states where Bernie Sanders won with relative ease.
 
But what about the second question? Sanders' broader point almost certainly had very little to do with race -- African-American voters tend to represent a larger percentage of the Democratic primary vote in the South than other regions -- and more to do with the idea that the region doesn't effectively represent Democratic politics at large. But which states do a better job? FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver took a closer look:
The most representative state ... is New Jersey. We expect its primary electorate to be about 57 percent white, 26 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian or other, quite close to the national Democratic electorate. New Jersey won't vote until June 7, although Clinton was well ahead when the last poll was released there in February.
 
After New Jersey comes Illinois, which Clinton won narrowly -- and then Florida, where Clinton won going away. Then there's New York, which votes Tuesday, and where Clinton is 15 percentage points ahead in our polling average. Virginia, another Southern state, ranks as the next most representative; Clinton won it easily. Then there's Nevada, another Clinton state, before we go back to the South to North Carolina, also won by Clinton. The next group of four states (Maryland, Tennessee, Arkansas and Michigan) are roughly tied and include some further representation for the South, along with, finally, one state (Michigan) that Sanders won.
So, for Sanders, this is a bit of a mixed bag.
A "Help Wanted" sign is posted in the window of an automotive service shop on March 8, 2013 in El Cerrito, California.

Republican economic plan gets the wrong kind of endorsement

04/18/16 12:40PM

Early on in Jeb Bush's ill-fated presidential campaign, the former Florida governor came up with an idea that would serve as the centerpiece of his entire candidacy: 4% GDP growth in his first term. The problem -- well, one of the many problems -- was that this wasn't so much an idea as an outlandish goal that no modern president has achieved, even during economic booms.
 
Team Jeb admitted at the time that the 4% figure wasn't based on any kind of meaningful policy analysis. Bush just liked the sound of it, so his aides built much of his campaign around the made-up figure.
 
Worse, it started a bidding war of sorts. Chris Christie, basing his projections on nothing but wishful thinking, said his plan would also create 4% growth. Scott Walker vowed to deliver 4.5% growth.
 
As it turns out, they're not the only candidates who can pull meaningless numbers out of thin air. Ted Cruz told CNBC on Friday morning that his agenda will lead to "a minimum of 5% GDP growth."
 
That, however, wasn't the funny part. Rather, Salon's Simon Maloy highlighted the angle that stood out for me.
...Cruz has an influential ally in his corner: Art Laffer, the high priest of trickle-down economics, who helped craft Cruz's plan. "Cruz's tax plan is better than Reagan's," Laffer told CNN. "I think you'll get growth rates higher than Reagan's." A good rule of thumb is that whenever you see Art Laffer extolling the amazing economic impact of a tax-cut package, assume the opposite will happen.
Yes, when Art Laffer endorses an economic plan, the appropriate response is, "Uh oh."

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.18.16

04/18/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* With one day remaining before the New York primary, the latest Emerson College poll shows Donald Trump leading John Kasich in the Republican race, 55% to 21%. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll pointed in a very similar direction. Both surveys found Ted Cruz running third.
 
* Among New York Democrats, Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders in the Emerson poll, 55% to 40%. The survey, released this morning, was conducted entirely after last week's debate.
 
* In developments that fit nicely into a larger pattern, Ted Cruz fared very well at Wyoming's Republican convention over the weekend, winning 14 at-large delegates, while snaring "23 of the 26 pledged delegates there in all."
 
* Bernie Sanders briefly met Pope Francis on Saturday morning during the senator's trip to the Vatican. Cognizant of the circumstances, the Catholic leader said afterwards, "I shook his hand and nothing more. If someone thinks that greeting someone means getting involved in politics, I recommend that he find a psychiatrist!"
 
* Donald Trump said on Saturday that the RNC is in for a "rough July" if he's denied the Republican presidential nomination. The candidate added yesterday that he hopes the party's convention "doesn't involve violence."
 
* Friday night, the Sanders campaign released his 2014 tax return. There doesn't appear to be anything particularly controversial in the materials.
 
* John Kasich's presidential campaign has picked up support in recent days from Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R), though the latter tried to draw a distinction between "supporting" Kasich and "endorsing" him.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with President Barack Obama in a cabinet meeting at the White House on June, 22, 2010.

Bob Gates' criticism of Obama sounds a bit like praise

04/18/16 11:20AM

Looking back, it was still one of President Obama's most striking personnel moves. Not long after the 2008 election, then-President-Elect Obama decided he wanted Robert Gates, George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, to remain on the job. For all of the dramatic differences between the two presidents, Obama saw Gates as a competent, steady hand at the Pentagon, so there was no need to replace him -- even if that meant having a Republican serving in a top cabinet post in a Democratic administration.
 
Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Obama and Gates didn't always see eye to eye, though there was never any evidence of real animosity, and if their differences were serious, their partnership never would have lasted as long as it did. Years later, Gates continues to reflect on his service, and he made some notable comments to the Washington Post's David Ignatius the other day.
Borrowing the famous quip about Richard Wagner's music, Gates said Obama's foreign policy "is not as bad as it sounds. It's the way it comes out that diminishes its effectiveness."
 
"The way things get done communicates reluctance to assert American power," Gates explained in an interview Wednesday. "They often end up in the right place, but a day late and a dollar short. The decisions are made seriatim. It presents an image that he's being dragged kicking and screaming to each new stage, and it dilutes the implementation of what he's done."
Some of Gates' concerns are institutional -- he thinks the National Security Council's staff is too large and too prone to micromanagement -- but the key point of contention is his belief that President Obama has seemed reluctant to use military force.
 
I suspect many of the White House's critics on the left would find this odd, given that Obama's military offenses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria -- and this list doesn't include drone strikes in a variety of additional theaters. But note, Gates didn't say Obama hasn't used force, only that he believes Obama should have demonstrated a "clearer desire to show we can act with force" when necessary.
 
In other words, Gates is making an argument about impressions and perceptions. This president, the argument goes, hasn't seemed eager to use force.
 
The former Pentagon chief may have intended this as mild criticism, but some may end up seeing this as unintentional praise.
This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned "Camp X-Ray" detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba April 9, 2014. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty)

Why the latest Guantanamo transfers are so important

04/18/16 10:40AM

In recent months, the Obama administration has successfully transferred quite a few detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but the developments over the weekend were a little different than most. NBC News reported over the weekend:
Nine detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention center have been transferred to the government of Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon announced Saturday. Department of Defense officials told NBC News all nine are from Yemen.
 
Among the nine being transferred is Tariq Ali Abdullah Ba Odah, who has been approved for transfer since 2009 and has been on a hunger strike since 2007. As of July 2015, he weighed 74 pounds and was regularly force-fed.
Updating a tally we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the detention facility's population peaked in 2003 with 680 prisoners. It's now down to just 80 -- 26 of whom have already been cleared for transfer. (When Obama first became president, the population stood at 242.)
 
The point of the gradual reductions, obviously, is to reduce the overall population, but it's also intended to appeal to Congress' sense of fiscal sanity: the smaller the number of detainees, the harder it is to justify the massive expense of keeping open a detention facility that houses so few people. Even if congressional Republicans are inclined to ignore the White House, military leaders, and Bush/Cheney administration veterans, the hope is that GOP lawmakers will at least care about wasteful spending.
 
But what makes this weekend's announcement so interesting has less to do with the specific tallies and more to do with the country that agreed to work with U.S. officials on these transfers.
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at a campaign stop, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Oshkosh, Wis. (Photo by Darren Hauck/AP)

Cruz vows not to ban sexual devices if elected

04/18/16 10:00AM

If the combination of presidential politics and sex is bound to get attention, Mother Jones published a gem last week, noting that Ted Cruz, during his tenure as Texas' solicitor general, helped defend a law criminalizing the sale of adult sexual devices.
 
As David Corn's article documented, Cruz, before he was elected to the Senate, co-authored a legal brief in 2007, urging the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold "a Texas law outlawing the sale and promotion of supposedly obscene devices." The brief compared the use of sex toys to "hiring a willing prostitute or engaging in consensual bigamy," and it equated advertising these products with the commercial promotion of prostitution. The legal filing also declared, "There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one's genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship."
 
BuzzFeed reported that the senator was asked about the article during a radio interview last week.
Cruz, asked by WABC radio host Curtis Sliwa if he would ban "the sale of sexual toys, dildos, or anything that sexually stimulates you," answered that he would not.
 
"Look, of course not, it's a ridiculous question, and of course not," Cruz told Sliwa on Friday. "What people do in their own private time with themselves is their own business and it's none of government's business."
Say hello to Ted Cruz, sexual libertine.
 
The clarification was hardly a surprise -- the Mother Jones piece made the rounds quickly, and Cruz was bound to face a question or two about it -- and there was no reason to believe the senator would allow this to be part of his presidential platform.
 
But there is that nagging question just below the surface: if Cruz is prepared to argue that it's "none of government's business" when Americans do "in their own private time," how does the senator reconcile this with his support for government laws restricting reproductive rights and marriage equality?
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., participates in a news conference.

House Republican complains about 'politicization' of Navy ships

04/18/16 09:20AM

Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.) has made national headlines for some unfortunate reasons in recent years. It was the California Republican, for example, who claimed in 2014 that he saw secret information about ISIS militants entering the United States through the Southern border.
 
Hunter more recently became one of the few members of Congress to formally endorse Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
 
Now, however, the GOP congressman has shifted his focus to an off-the-beaten-path issue: the way in which the Navy names its ships. Defense News reported the other day (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up):
When Sen. Angus King, I-Maine,  mentioned April 6 that the US Navy would name a new destroyer after retired Sen. Carl Levin, D-Wis., fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Seapower subcommittee were quick to praise the choice.
 
"Thank you for that pleasant news item about the [USS] Carl Levin," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the subcommittee. "I think you saw heads nodding on both sides of the table. Senator Levin is a distinguished and thoughtful American statesman and was as even-handed a chairman as I've ever served with in my 21 years in the House and Senate. So, that's excellent news."
 
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., echoed Wicker's approval. "Let me just add my congratulations to Senator Levin," Ayotte said. "I can't think of a better person to name the ship after. That's great."
Hunter, however, does not think it's great. In fact, the far-right congressman wrote a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last week, demanding an explanation for the retired Senate Democrat receiving this honor.
 
The Californian said his concerns aren't about Levin specifically, but rather, Hunter's concern about the ship-naming process. Hunter's chief of staff told Defense News that Mabus "has politicized the Navy to the point of no return."
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listens to the first question at an African American Community Conversation town hall event in Philadelphia, Penn., April 6, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

Bernie Sanders stumbles on Senate's Saudi bill

04/18/16 08:40AM

When Bernie Sanders struggled during a recent interview with the New York Daily News, the criticisms largely focused on his apparent lack of preparation. It's not that the senator's answers were substantively controversial, but rather, Sanders responded to several questions with answers such as, "I don't know the answer to that," "Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot," and "You're asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer."
 
He ran into similar trouble during a recent interview with the Miami Herald, which asked Sanders about the Cuban Adjustment Act, which establishes the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that may be due for a re-evaluation. The senator responded, "I have to tell you that I am not up to date on that issue as I can" be.
 
The interviews raised questions about his depth of understanding, particularly outside of the issues that make up his core message. Yesterday, making his 42nd Sunday show appearance of 2016, Sanders ran into similar trouble during an interview with CNN's Dana Bash.
BASH: Let's talk about something in the news that will be on your plate as a sitting U.S. senator. Saudi Arabia has told the Obama administration that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars of American assets if Congress allows the Saudi government to held -- to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the 9/11 attacks. How do you intend to vote as a senator?
 
SANDERS: Well, I need more information before I can give you a decision.
Though the senator spoke generally about his concerns regarding Saudi Arabia, the host pressed further, asking if he supports allowing Americans to hold Saudi Arabia liable in U.S. courts. Sanders replied, "Well, you're going to hear -- you're asking me to give you a decision about a situation and a piece of legislation that I am not familiar with at this point. And I have got to have more information on that. So, you have got to get some information before you can render, I think, a sensible decision."
 
I can appreciate why this may seem like a fairly obscure issue, but the legislation Sanders was asked about was on the front page of the New York Times yesterday morning and the front page of the New York Daily News on Saturday.
 
It's not unfair to ask a sitting senator about legislation pending in the Senate that's quite literally front-page news.
People wait in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court building January 11, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)

Generation's biggest immigration case gets its day in court

04/18/16 08:00AM

For nearly six years, U.S. policymaking on immigration was stuck. The Obama administration had already increased border security and enforcement in the hopes of creating the political conditions necessary for legislative changes, but congressional Republicans wouldn't budge. GOP lawmakers said, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms, that there would be no compromise.
 
In November 2014, soon after the midterm elections, President Obama announced he'd found a way forward, overhauling immigration policy through his executive authority. The result was a policy known as DAPA -- Deferred Action for Parental Accountability -- in which the White House, among other things, extended temporary status to millions of undocumented immigrants, shielding them from deportation threats and allowing them to apply for work permits.
 
At the time, the Justice Department took the unusual step of publishing a dense, 33-page legal memo, explaining in great detail exactly why the president’s executive actions are legally permissible under existing laws, rulings, and precedents. Federalist Society members couldn’t come up with a constitutional objection; Obama’s actions are in line with what some of his Republican predecessors did without incident; and the whole legal argument against Obama’s actions seemed a little silly.
 
The White House's Republican critics, however, felt a little differently, and 26 states a filed suit challenging DAPA. As Vox's Dara Lind explained over the weekend, oral arguments in this case are scheduled for this morning at the Supreme Court. United States v. Texas, she noted, is "the most important immigration case the Supreme Court has taken up in a generation (or, arguably, a century)."
Because immigration is such a divisive culture war issue -- and because phrases like "enforce the law" get tossed around frequently as talking points -- it sure seems like this case should be a massive legal dispute over what should happen to unauthorized immigrants in the US. But it's not. There are four questions at play in the case, and all of them are, given the importance of the case, relatively narrow.
The questions focus on whether Texas has the authority to challenge DAPA; did the administration follow the necessary procedures when approving the policy; did the president have the authority to move forward on DAPA; and is the policy itself constitutional.
 
For the White House, Democrats, immigration advocates, and most legal experts, the answers to each of these questions are pretty obvious. And, as it turns out, for conservatives, the answers are equally obvious, though they predictably reach the opposite conclusion.
 
MSNBC's Amanda Sakuma noted last week that the Obama administration is optimistic about prevailing at the Supreme Court, but if the justices disagree, "there is no immediate plan B."
Composite image of the gravitational lens SDP.81 showing the distorted ALMA image of the more distant galaxy (red arcs) and the Hubble optical image of the nearby lensing galaxy (blue center object).

Week in Geek - Hiding in the light edition

04/17/16 10:24AM

This may look like the a poor recreation of the Eye of Sauron, but it's actually a gravitational lens of one galaxy warping the light from another.

Back in 2014, astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile discovered this lensing system, dubbed SDP.81. Gravitational lenses are a prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity that describes gravity as a space-time continuum - light traveling through space from a distant galaxy can be "bent" if it passes too close to a massive galaxy or galaxy cluster. When this happens along our line of sight, we see the closer galaxy surrounding by false imaged of the more distant galaxy. The shape and distribution of the false images depends on the mass of the closer galaxy (or galaxies).

The blue glow in the center of the image above is a relatively close galaxy around 3.5 billion light years away (as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope). The red arcs in the image are the false images of a more distant galaxy over 12 billion light years away (as observed by ALMA). Now, new analysis of how the light from this more distant galaxy was warped to make the arcs we see has revealed that there is a dark dwarf galaxy hiding just to the lower left of the center (as marked by a small white dot). But the white dot isn't actually there in the Hubble images, so what's going on?

Astronomers led by Yashar Hezaveh at Stanford University deduced that something massive enough to affect the shape of the red arcs has to be there. They think it could be a small, faint, dark-matter dominated galaxy in orbit around the visible blue galaxy, which is not uncommon at all since most galaxies should be surrounded by a collection of smaller ones. The biggest problem seems to be detecting them.

As Neal Dalal, another member of the team, states in the ALMA press release:

"This discrepancy between observed satellites and predicted abundances has been a major problem in cosmology for nearly two decades, even called a 'crisis' by some researchers... If these dwarf objects are dominated by dark matter, this could explain the discrepancy while offering new insights into the true nature of dark matter."

Here's some more geek from the week:

read more

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Ia., July 18, 2015. (Photo by Jim Young/Reuters)

This Week in God, 4.16.16

04/16/16 08:18AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a curious twist in a curious Biblical journey for the leading Republican presidential candidate.
 
Donald Trump's clumsiness on matters of faith has been a point of concern for some conservative voters before, and last summer, the New York Republican refused to say which parts of Scripture are important to him, saying it was "private." (Asked whether he's drawn more to the New or Old Testaments, Trump said, "Both.")
 
In time, however, there's been an evolution in his approach. When Trump sat down with TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, the candidate said, "There's so many things that you can learn from it (the Bible). Proverbs, the chapter 'never bend to envy.' I've had that thing all of my life where people are bending to envy."
 
BuzzFeed reported this week that Trump is now going a little further, moving past his concerns about "privacy" and telling a radio host that his favorite Scriptural lesson is, of all things, an "eye for an eye."
"Is there a favorite Bible verse or Bible story that has informed your thinking or your character through life, sir?" asked host Bob Lonsberry on WHAM 1180 AM.
 
Trump responded, "Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That's not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what's happening to our country, I mean, when you see what's going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they're taking our jobs, they're taking our money, they're taking the health of our country. And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you."
I'm not sure Trump fully appreciates what the Book of Matthew was getting at -- "eye for an eye" is about proportionality and restraint, not lashing out at enemies -- but he's clearly changed his posture on religious familiarity over the course of the campaign.
 
Trump is clearly not yet close to anything resembling fluency in matters of faith, but his campaign team probably told him months ago that Republican audiences didn't want to hear him say that the Bible is his favorite book -- for reasons he didn't want to talk about.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:

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