Vivek Wadhwa: The Rise Of Big Data Brings Tremendous Possibilities And Frighte

Vivek Wadhwa: The Rise Of Big Data Brings Tremendous Possibilities And Frightening Perils 2014-04-19

Debates are raging about whether big data still holds the promise that was expected or whether it was just a big bust. The failure of the much-hyped Google Flu Trends to accurately predict peak flu levels since August 2011 has heightened the concerns.

In my mind, there is no doubt that data analytics will one day help to improve health care and crime detection, design better products, and improve traffic patterns and agricultural yields. My concern is about how we will one day use all the data we are gathering -- and the skeletons it will uncover. Think about how DNA technology is being used to free people who were wrongfully imprisoned decades ago. Imagine what supercomputers of the future will be able to do with the data that present-day data gatherers haven't yet learned to use.

Over the centuries, we gathered data on things such as climate, demographics, and business and government transactions. Our farmers kept track of the weather so that they would know when to grow their crops; we had land records so that we could own property; and we developed phone books so that we could find people. About 15 years ago we started creating Web pages on the Internet. Interested parties started collecting data about what news we read, where we shopped, what sites we surfed, what music we listened to, what movies we watched, and where we traveled to. With the advent of LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and many other social-media tools, we began to volunteer private information about our work history and social and business contacts and what we like -- our food, entertainment, even our sexual preferences and spiritual values.

Today, data are accumulating at exponentially increasing rates. There are more than 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, and even more video is being collected worldwide through the surveillance cameras that you see everywhere. Mobile-phone apps are keeping track of our every movement: everywhere we go; how fast we move; what time we wake. Soon, devices that we wear or that are built into our smartphones will monitor our body's functioning; our sequenced DNA will reveal the software recipe for our physical body.

The NSA has been mining our phone metadata and occasionally listening in; marketers are correlating information about our gender, age, education, location, and socioeconomic status and using this to sell more to us; and politicians are fine-tuning their campaigns.

This is baby stuff compared to what lies ahead. The available tools for analyzing data are still crude; there are very few good data scientists; and companies such as Google still haven't figured out what is the best data to analyze. This will surely change rapidly as artificial-intelligence technologies evolve and computers become more powerful and connected. We will be able to analyze all data we have collected from the beginning of time -- as if we were entering a data time machine.

We will be revisiting crime cases from the past, re-auditing tax returns, tracking down corruption, and learning who were the real heroes and villains. An artificially intelligent cybercop scanning all the camera data that were gathered, as well as phone records, e-mails, bank-account and credit-card data, and medical data on everyone in a city or a country, will instantly solve a crime better than Sherlock Holmes could. Our grandchildren will know of the sins we committed; Junior may wonder why grandpa was unfaithful to grandma.

What is scary is that we will lose our privacy, opening the door to new types of crime and fraud. Governments and employers will gain more control over us, and have corporations reap greater profits from the information that we innocently handed over to them. More data and more computing will mean more money and power. Look at the advantage that bankers on Wall Street have already gained with high-frequency trading and how they are skimming billions of dollars from our financial system.

We surely need stronger laws and technology protections. And we need to be aware of the perils. We must also realize that with our misdeeds, there will be nowhere to hide -- not even in our past.

There are many opportunities in this new age of data.

Consider what becomes possible if we correlate information about a person's genome, lifestyle habits, and location with their medical history and the medications they take. We could understand the true effectiveness of drugs and their side effects. This would change the way drugs are tested and prescribed. And then, when genome data become available for hundreds of millions of people, we could discover the links between disease and DNA to prescribe personalized medications -- tailored to an individual's DNA. We are talking about a revolution in health and medicine.

In schools, classes are usually so large that the teacher does not get to know the student -- particularly the child's other classes, habits, and development through the years. What if a digital tutor could keep track of a child's progress and learn his or her likes and dislikes, teaching-style preferences, and intellectual strengths and weaknesses? Using data gathered by digital learning devices, test scores, attendance, and habits, the teacher could be informed of which students to focus on, what to emphasize, and how best to teach an individual child. This could change the education system itself.

Combine the data that are available on a person's shopping habits with knowledge of their social preferences, health, and location. We could have shopping assistants and personal designers creating new products including clothing that are 3D-printed or custom-manufactured for the individual. An artificial intelligence based digital assistant could anticipate what a person wants to wear or to eat and have it ready for them.

All of these scenarios will become possible, as will thousands of other applications of data in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and other fields. The only question is how fast will we get there -- and what new nightmares we will create.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke's engineering school and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities. His past appointments include Harvard Law School and University of California Berkeley.

This post first appeared in the Washington Post.

Diane Dimond: The Us Prison System Needs A Total Overhaul

Diane Dimond: The Us Prison System Needs A Total Overhaul 2014-04-19

"We have embraced the idea that being mentally sick is a crime."

It is way past time to overhaul the U.S. prison system.

I'm not talking about a little tweak here and there. I'm talking about throwing a massive metaphorical hand grenade into the entire system and starting over from scratch. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the system to have morphed into what it has.

Why should you care about this? Well, because you're paying for it. Between states and the federal government the U.S. spends about $74 billion a year housing, feeding, providing health care (such as it is in prison) for inmates and supervising the newly released.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012 there were nearly 7 million Americans under the supervision of adult correctional systems. Translated: one in every 108 adults in the United States was incarcerated, a per-capita world record. The problem, as I see it, centers on who we are locking up. The Washington Post reports that only one percent of them are in for murder. Four percent are serving time for robbery. The most serious charge against 51 percent of them is a drug offense.

But here is the most startling, heart-wrenching statistic of them all. According to a Justice Department study more than half of the prisoners in the U.S. suffer from a bona fide mental illness. Among female inmates, about three-quarters have a diagnosable mental disorder.

Why in the world are we locking up the mentally ill in the same place we house violent and predatory criminals? The answer is simple. Because there is nowhere else to put the "crazy people," so we put them in jail after they act out. Many times their families have spent years begging for mental health care for their disturbed loved one to no avail. And sometimes, the "crazy people" deliberately commit crimes knowing they will be housed, fed and minimally medicated in lockup.

Back in the mid-'50s, psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were found to be so successful in quelling mental patient's delusions and agitation that within a decade society decided it was cruel to continue to institutionalize them. The abuse of patients and unsanitary conditions found at some mental hospitals were ascribed to all such institutions so we closed them down. Patients were given a prescription for their meds and told they were "free." No one seemed to notice that the planned community mental health centers never materialized and when one of these former patients had a problem there were very few places they could go for help.

The pattern continues to this day. There are simply not enough mental health beds to service everyone who needs help. Today, commitment is difficult and, sadly, we have to wait for the mentally ill to actually commit a crime before the state steps in. In the last few years, many of America's mass murders were committed by untreated mentally ill people who should have been in a mental health care facility -- for their protection and for ours.

It's ironic, isn't it? The very society that once agreed it was unjust to lock people up in mental hospitals now allows the mentally disturbed to be locked up in much more dangerous jails and prisons.

We have turned our backs on these folks and our prisons have become de facto psychiatric facilities. We have decided that these are throwaway human beings and embrace the idea that being mentally sick is a crime. Our children and grandchildren are going to look back and wonder what was wrong with us.

I could fill this entire page with quotes from wardens describing the horror of what happens to sufferers of schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and other mental illnesses once they enter prison. But the ugly truth is that some of those same wardens employ practices that are, literally, creating even more disturbed individuals.

The widespread use of solitary confinement in prisons has been shown to have a tremendously negative effect. Mostly because inmates -- be they habitually violent, in danger from other prisoners or simply a rule breaker -- are often held for months and even years in isolation. You know what being locked up, alone, for years at a time does to the human mind?

According to Dr. Stuart Grassian, a veteran psychiatrist from Harvard who is considered an expert on the effects of solitary confinement, prolonged seclusion only leads inmates to exhibit more impulsive and violent behavior.

"Ninety-five percent of these people will get out and be released back on the streets," Grassian said on a National Geographic documentary. "All isolation will have done is make them as violent, crazy and dangerous as possible when they get out."

So how long does the system continue doing what we know doesn't work? When do the priorities shift away from warehousing chronic drug addicts with the hope that they will somehow cure themselves by their release date? When do we stop thinking it is morally defensible to house the mentally ill alongside career gang-bangers, rapists and killers? And, what will it take to convince prison administrators to reject the rage-filling practice of prolonged solitary confinement?

Look, I'm not advocating letting anyone out of prison. I'm suggesting its way past time to take a fresh look at revolutionary new ways to spend that $74 billion every year.

How about we start with a plan that separates the hardcore, habitual criminals from the mentally sick and persistently addicted? Keep the first group in a standard prison setting. Then, turn some of our prisons into psychiatric centers to help the more fragile inmates. The past confirms that an overwhelming majority of those who suffer from mental illness and addiction are not violent. They are lost souls who could possibly get their lives set straight if exposed to the right therapies and medications.

I'm embarrassed that we have adopted a toss-and-forget attitude about so many of our weakest citizens. Prison is not where they belong and it certainly isn't where they will ever learn to become contributing members of society again. By continuing our current policies we insure only one thing: America's per-capita standing as the world's number one jailer.

Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com. You can reach her here: Diane@DianeDimond.com. Diane is active on Facebook and Twitter @DiDimond

Joan Feigenbaum: Is Data Hoarding Necessary For Lawful Surveillance?

Joan Feigenbaum: Is Data Hoarding Necessary For Lawful Surveillance? 2014-04-19

The NSA's mass surveillance activities, including the collection of billions of U.S. cell phone records every day, have sparked vigorous debate about whether such surveillance is legal, consistent with democratic principles, or effective in catching the terrorists it ostensibly targets. One essential question has received little attention, however: Is amassing mountains of privacy-sensitive "metadata" technically necessary for effective, lawful electronic tracking and surveillance of legitimate targets?

The answer is emphatically no. Well understood cryptographic techniques can enable lawful intercept and surveillance without the creation of centralized hoards of personal information. This is not a geeky footnote in the mass surveillance saga. Such hoards are dangerous as well as unnecessary; they could be leaked or sold to a foreign state or criminal gang by a future, more venal incarnation of Edward Snowden.

The FBI is already adept at catching criminals without hoarding the cell phone metadata of all Americans. The High Country Bandits were two men who robbed 16 rural banks in Arizona and Colorado before being caught. After one bandit was observed using a cell phone near a robbery site, the FBI obtained cell tower dumps -- records from cellular providers listing all cell phones that had electronically "checked in" around the locations and times of three past robberies. This request yielded three sets of phone numbers, one from each cell tower, containing approximately 150,000 numbers in total. However, only one phone number appeared in the intersection of these sets, i.e., in all three: that of the phone one bandit had carried during the robberies. The bandit need not have made any calls; his phone merely needed to have been powered on and communicating with the cell towers.

In computer security, this is known as an intersection attack, with the FBI in this case playing the role of "attacker." Intersection attacks are a powerful, general, and in this case effective method of answering questions of the form, "What is common to several large heaps of otherwise meaningless-looking data?"

Intersection attacks are also evidently the foundation of the NSA's CO-TRAVELER program. To find unknown associates of a known target, the NSA collects cell tower dumps of all users carrying cell phones near the target at different locations and times. The NSA then identifies previously unknown cell phone numbers common to several of these sets, representing people who may be "traveling with" the target. Although the U.S. government has offered scant evidence of this claim, let us assume for the sake of argument that location-tracking methods like CO-TRAVELER are effective at catching terrorists.

The FBI did not need to hoard the cell phone records of all Americans to catch the High Country Bandits, but they still swept 149,999 other phone numbers into their intersection attack: numbers probably belonging to innocent people who happened to be in the vicinity of one robbery site but not all three. Did the FBI immediately delete the rest of these phone numbers, or were they stashed for possible use in future investigations? Part of the widespread opposition to New York City's "stop-and-frisk" regime was the NYPD's policy of retaining the names, addresses, and descriptions of people who had been stopped, frisked, determined to be doing nothing illegal, and released without ever having been arrested, much less convicted of a crime. Should the FBI need to do the equivalent of a retroactive "stop and frisk" of 149,999 innocent cell phone users, gathering their phone numbers and potentially storing them forever to use in ways yet to be determined, in the process of catching one pair of bandits? Even if the FBI were to declare a policy of deleting data incidentally collected on users not under suspicion, must Americans simply trust that every FBI agent will follow this policy faithfully?

The answer is still no. Modern cryptography has moved far beyond merely encrypting and decrypting data. We can now perform many computations on encrypted data, while keeping it encrypted and unknown to the parties performing the computation. For example, we have efficient methods for privacy-preserving set intersection, which start with several sets of encrypted items, decrypt only the elements in the intersection, and leave items not in the intersection encrypted and unreadable by anyone. Thus, cell phone carriers could have stored cell tower data in encrypted form, used privacy-preserving set intersection, and delivered only the bandit's phone number to the FBI without disclosing the other 149,999 phone numbers to anyone. This may sound like magic, but it is merely an illustration of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Like any technology, modern cryptography can be misused: for example, to conceal spy agencies' activities without accountability or privacy protection for innocent users. Proper uses should ensure that lawful electronic surveillance activities protect the innocent, are properly authorized and limited in scope, are subject to robust oversight, and follow transparent processes that the public can debate or challenge in court. With proper system design, adequately informed by both policy and technological capabilities, this combination of surveillance power and privacy safeguards is achievable with existing technology.

For example, cell phone carriers could encrypt their lawful intercept records so that neither the carriers themselves nor any single government agency can decrypt them. These records would be useless to malicious insiders at the carriers or hackers who might compromise the carriers' networks, mitigating one valid reason carriers don't want to hold this hot potato. Records could be "unlocked" only when independent agencies representing all three branches of government coordinate, e.g., when an intelligence agency electronically requests a warrant, a judge digitally signs it, and a legislative oversight agency digitally attests that the warrant has been tallied in statistics reported to Congress. This electronic coordination need not be slow; the process could occur within seconds of the judge's signing the warrant.

With privacy-preserving set intersection, an agency need not have a name or phone number to request a warrant. For example, the FBI could have issued a "John Doe" warrant merely listing the cell tower dumps of interest in the High Country Bandits case. The judge authorizing this warrant could limit its scope by specifying a threshold number of these dumps that a phone number must appear in before that phone number can be decrypted and revealed to the FBI. The judge could also specify the maximum number of phone numbers that the warrant may reveal. If, for example, the three requested cell tower dumps unexpectedly coincided with three Justin Bieber concerts, then the warrant might net the phone numbers of thousands of innocent regular teenage fans without yielding useful intelligence. In this case, the set-intersection process would abort without revealing any phone numbers, protecting the fans and requiring the FBI agent to request different cell tower dumps or otherwise narrow the search.

Recent breakthroughs may soon make it practical to perform any computation on encrypted data. Currently, the use of encrypted input data may impose some performance cost, but often such costs are not show stoppers for intelligence agencies following targeted leads. And the costs are falling: DARPA is funding a major effort in computing on encrypted data as part of its PROCEED program.

The NSA is a major employer of cryptographers and computer-security experts. If the US government had directed the agency to work with the broader security-research community on proper application of privacy-preserving technology for warrant-based surveillance, instead of directing it to hoard cell phone metadata of U.S. citizens, a giant and still-ongoing controversy might have been avoided. It is not too late to begin such a collaboration, but that window of opportunity may be closing.

Peter W. Wood: Bowdoin's Double Bogey

Peter W. Wood: Bowdoin's Double Bogey 2014-04-19

A year ago I published What Does Bowdoin Teach? Or, more precisely, my co-author Michael Toscano and I posted a 376-page obsessively-detailed campus tour, subtitled How A Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students. Those reading at the leisurely pace of a page a day should be finished by now.

WDBT was not a great hit with Bowdoin's president, Barry Mills, or for that matter with most of the students and faculty members. Some were offended. Mr. Mills took it as a personal affront. Nearly all the faculty publicly ignored it. The college's official stand was, in Mills's words, that we "attacked" Bowdoin, and that the attack was "mean spirited" and "personal."

But while many pretended to stay within the circled wagons, we kept hearing from those who sneaked out at dark to say, "You got it right!" "Keep it up!" And, "You don't know the half of it!"

Then last week President Mills announced that he is resigning -- at least a year earlier than he had planned and with nothing lined up, though he says he is not retiring. Mills said he is leaving because of his "affection for the college," and the Bowdoin trustees' statement says Mills was doing "what he thinks best for our College." Both statements suggest a resignation under pressure, but it is hard to know what the source of that might have been. I have no reason to think that WDBT had anything to do with it. But I would like to think that Bowdoin's board did eventually get around to reading our study. If so, it might have wondered why Mills was so grimly determined not to pay it any heed.

If this is the first you've heard of this controversy, there are two things you should know: the golf story and the game plan. The golf story is this. In 2010, an affluent New York businessman played a round of golf with President Mills. A month later, Mills gave a speech in which he caricatured the businessman as a bad sport, and an ignorant, boorish, and racist conservative. Mills then published his speech. The businessman read it and responded with an elegant essay of his own in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, deflecting Mills' taunts mostly by demonstration of keen intelligence and social sophistication.

Mills didn't come off looking good from this and was even more irritated when a group of students invited the businessman -- Tom Klingenstein -- to campus to debate.

Now the game plan. At Tom's invitation, I joined him on that trip. I'd debated people on political correctness and the excesses of campus activism many times before; Tom hadn't. He wanted back-up. As it happened, Mills called the student organizer of the event "a traitor" and refused to come. We ended up talking with an auditorium of Bowdoin students for a few hours. They stoutly defended Mills's main idea: that the college gave them a perfectly good education and they weren't missing anything of value.

Could that be true? I launched What Does Bowdoin Teach? as an effort to find out. But as I told Tom at the outset, poring over the details of a curriculum, academic requirements, faculty appointments, research foci, official documents, the rules of student life, and all the other minutiae of a contemporary college would likely result in a study drier than the Sahara.

And WDBT is indeed exactly that. We dressed it up with palm trees at the beginning. Bill Bennett contributed a foreword and Tom added a "letter to the alumni." And I put aside the Saharan sand long enough to write an "interpretive preface" that calls Bowdoin out on some of its more egregious educational missteps. But after that come hundreds of pages of finely-sifted detail on who teaches what and why. You can learn about the college's internal battles over student unpreparedness and whether to require a foreign language. You can watch the rise in honors projects and the decline in survey courses.

It ain't the stuff that would set the world on fire. Yet it did. At least the parts of the world I spend my working life paying attention to. The report became a big deal in conservative circles as the first and so far only meticulously documented account of how a liberal arts college lost its way. Or, maybe better put, lost its educational way and yet prospered in every other way. For Bowdoin is a raging success by many standards. It has an endowment of over $1 billion; US News & World Report last year elevated it to fourth in the nation among selective liberal arts colleges; its applicants far outnumber the students it admits; it pays its faculty handsomely; and to the extent anyone can tell, its recent alumni do fine.

With that kind of record you might think Bowdoin could have smiled indulgently at our study and thanked us for our eccentric interest in obscure details of old catalogs, minutes of faculty meetings, and long-forgotten speeches. But instead Bowdoin went into full-scale alarm. We truly did touch a nerve. The interesting question is, "Which nerve?" Proposed study: Why Did Bowdoin Panic?

Part of the answer lies in how the report was received elsewhere. I've heard from faculty members and college administrators across the country who reacted, "This could just as easily have been written about us." Bowdoin felt singled out and its guilty response to much of what we said was a version of, "Why pick on us? Everybody does it."

That, of course, is the complaint of the driver pulled over for speeding. But it was exactly our point. We said that, for us, Bowdoin was only an example: small enough to study in depth, wealthy enough to fully realize its dreams of what a liberal arts college should do. What we hit upon, quite unexpectedly is that, at some level, Bowdoin has a bad conscience. It knows that it has made some wrong turns but it doesn't like hearing that from a stranger. Nor does it know how to get back on track.

This is American higher education today: an angry driver, lost and confused but too proud to stop and ask directions. "I'm not lost! I know exactly where I'm going!" And to prove it, that angry driver speeds up and zips past the next exit.

Bowdoin's confusions are too many to drop into a single final paragraph. They range from a truly chaotic curriculum; an overestimation of what students -- even very bright students -- know when they first arrive on campus; a series of hard-to-undo judgments that unbalanced the faculty in favor of highly-specialized researchers; a smothering embrace of identity politics; the elevation of political piety over intellectual freedom; a distaste for America's political traditions; and an over-the-top sexualization of campus life. These are interwoven in some surprising ways. I'll explain that in some further posts.

Zach Wasser: Nba Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

Zach Wasser: Nba Eastern Conference Playoff Preview 2014-04-19

Before the start of the season and even through the first quarter of games played, the outcome of the Eastern Conference playoffs seemed predetermined: the Indiana Pacers would square off against the Miami Heat for a spot in the NBA Finals. Now, with the Pacers in rapid decline and the Heat sliding not far behind, anything seems possible. Check that: almost anything (sorry, Charlotte). With hopes of early upsets, here are my picks for the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #8 Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have a better offense than the Pacers? Yes, yes they do.

Atlanta used that somehow-superior offense to embarrass the Pacers on April 6th, beating them by 19.

I'm hard-pressed to pick an eighth seed over a one -- especially this eighth seed, a team that lost it's best player, Al Horford, in December to a torn pectoral muscle and whose own general manager, Danny Ferry, said that he didn't care if the team made the playoffs or not.

That being said, the Hawks do pose a matchup problem for the Pacers -- specifically Roy Hibbert's inability to guard center-ish Hawks big man, Pero Antic. I'm not completely comfortable pegging this thirty-something year-old Macedonian rookie as a potential "difference maker" in this series, but Pero has torched the Pacers this year.

With Roy reluctant to meet him on the perimeter, Pero shot a staggering 72 percent from the field, 60 percent behind the arc and averaged 17 points per game in two Hawks wins this season against the Pacers. This is an admittedly small sample size and could definitely just be an aberration. For the season, Pero averaged 7 points and shot a pedestrian 41.8 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent from long range. But I like this guy -- I'm not sure why.

Since the NBA changed its first round series from five to seven games in 2003, three eighth seeds have upset the top dog in the first round: Don Nelson's Warriors over Dirk and the Mavs in 2007, Grizzlies over Spurs in 2011 and Philadelphia over a Rose-less Bulls team in 2012.

Of those three upsets, I think this Pacers-Hawks matchup most resembles that 2007 Mavericks-Warriors series. The Pacers, like the Mavs of yesteryear, have a yet-unproven star (Paul George and Dirk respectively). Of course Dirk was much more accomplished in 2007 than George is now, since Dirk actually won the MVP award in '07 while George was merely an early season third-place candidate for the award at best.

But my point is that George is not a reliable star (don't forget Dirk choked the year before in the Finals after going up 2-0 against the Heat and then followed that up with a subpar postseason series against the Warriors in which the Mavericks were the first one seed to lose to an eighth seed since the first round changed to seven games).

And just as the Hawks stretch the Pacers out -- drawing Hibbert and David West out of the paint to guard Pero and Paul Millsap on the perimeter -- so too did the Mavs face a match-up nightmare in Golden State. The 2007 Warriors, coached by Don Nelson, were ahead of their time. Nelson favored smaller, quicker lineups, shunning the conventional wisdom that any good team had to feature a back-to-the-basket big. Nelson encouraged his players to take the first good look they had which led to a lot of field goal attempts early in the shot clock often from downtown.

Of course, this Hawks team lacks the swagger (what's a good synonym for swagger? I'm not a fan) which defined that 2007 Warrior team - a group of players that no other team wanted and who were brought together by Nelson, the mad scientist, who encouraged them to be their purest and baddest selves. And the 2011 Hawks are nowhere near as talented as '07 Warriors. Yes, Paul Millsap earned his first All-Star appearance this season and Pero is a real problem for Roy, not to mention the lights-out shooting of Kyle "Ashton Kutcher" Korver giving the Pacers fits and the improved play of Jeff Teague... wait, the more I write, the more I am convinced. Alright, I'm in Hawks. You can all laugh at me later when they get swept or hail me as a prophet. Pacers's top-ranked defense be damned! Atlanta in seven!

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 Charlotte Bobcats

Heat in five. Wah-wah. When the Heat want to be the best defensive team in the league, they flip that proverbial switch and send teams packing quickly, especially in the first round. Kemba Walker, though it breaks my Hungry Husky Heart to say it, is an average NBA point guard (which, in truth, is not really an insult considering the quality at that position in the league today). He's not a great shooter -- he's below 40% from the field -- and the Mario Chalmers/Noris Cole combo should play him to a relative standstill. Yes, Big Al Jefferson can dominate the interior offensively, but he's also a kitchen-door defender. Which is a problem because the other team has Lebron James and a well-rested Dwayne Wade (at his best this season, Wade looks like he's just woken up from one of those perfect two hour naps -- not groggy, just ready to attack the day). And just for good measure, the Heat have Chris Bosh -- a player that would be the go-to guy on that Bobcats -- as a third option. The Bobcats will steal one on their home floor and after which we can finally, mercifully lay the Bobcats nickname to rest forever; amen.

#3 Toronto Raptors vs. #6 #6 Brooklyn Nets

This might be the most intriguing matchup of the first round in the Eastern Conference. I've gone back and forth on this one, but I like the Nets in six. Jason Kidd, to his credit, righted the ship after a shaky start to the season. After losing Brook Lopez, Kidd adapted his lineups and game plan to fit his personal, starting Shaun Livingston - who has been a revelation -- benching Derron "Horrible Hairline" Williams and utilizing Paul Pierce as a stretch-four (a progressive move reminiscent of how Kidd's former coach, Mike Woodson, changed Carmelo Anthony's role in 2013). So often NBA coaches are rigid seemingly for no good reason (Scottie Brooks and Marc Jackson, come on bros). It's refreshing to see a new head coach as unflappable and as open-minded as Kidd.

The biggest question for the Nets is Garnett. KG has averaged 20.5 minutes in 54 games this season.

Put another way, he's missed over a third of the season and in the games that he actually got on the court, he was only out there for less than a half of the game. Considering the way Jason Kidd's career ended - forty-years old, exhausted and having no legs under him from having played too many minutes earlier in the season, Kidd shot 0 for 17 over his last ten playoff games and limped off into the sunset. Perhaps Kidd had KG on the Duncan plan so that he would be fresh for the games that really matter. Or maybe KG just can't play any more than 20-plus minutes at this point in his career. The answer to that question will influence how far Brooklyn can go in these playoffs.

#4 Chicago Bulls vs. #5 Washington Wizards

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is one lonely dude, or so I imagine.

He's 56, he doesn't have a wife or kids -- really any family to speak of -- which leaves him with plenty of free time to design defensive schemes as maniacal as his laugh.

For that reason alone, I'm taking the Bulls over the Wiz in six -- but I'm not happy about it. I want the Wizards to win: they're a more entertaining team largely because of their fourth year point guard, John Wall. Wall has developed a consistent outside shot to compliment his freakish end-to-end speed. And he's playing with great pace this season. In years past, he only had one gear, but this year he's learned how to shift down in order to read the defense and make the best play rather than barreling headlong toward the rim without a plan. I would love Wall to prove me wrong and emerge as the star of these playoffs, but I don't know if he has enough help to make it happen.

Plus, the Bulls have an advantage in the frontcourt (even with Boozer? You ask, and I, ashamed, shake my head yes). The trio of Joakim Noah - my choice for Defensive Player of the Year - Taj Gibson and and the Booze Cruise should outplay the Wizards line of "Fragile, Do Not Shake" Nene, the ne'er-defend-well Marcin Gortat and Drew Gooden who I hear is having a good season, but I refuse to believe it.

The fact that the Bulls are a four seed with D.J. "Chubby Gopher" Augustin as their -- wait, what? -- LEADING SCORER upsets me deeply. Augustin's improved play is proof enough that Thibodeau is so deeply bored and deeply evil that he has the time and the pathological yearning to create a system in which the chubbiest of gophers can thrive as an NBA point guard.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: Don't Forget The Other Irs Scandal

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: Don't Forget The Other Irs Scandal 2014-04-19

Washington, DC and the right wing outrage machine are all abuzz that the IRS allegedly targeted groups based on their presumed political affiliation. Obviously, that was wrong to do, but let's not forget that there are two IRS scandals. The other is allowing big shadowy forces to meddle in elections anonymously through front groups that file false IRS statements.

Let's go through this. It's pretty clear that Americans have a strong interest in knowing who's trying to influence their vote in elections. Even the Supreme Court agreed 8-1, in the otherwise loathsome Citizens United decision, that "effective disclosure" provides "shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."

Although the law in America requires lots of disclosure, and the Supreme Court has emphasized the importance of disclosure, a company or a billionaire trying to hide their political influence-seeking can use a front organization to hide behind. Not many organizations can hide their donors that way; one is called a 501(c)(4), a tax-exempt non-profit form of corporation regulated by the IRS.

For secretive donors, there's a problem. That kind of organization, a 501(c)(4), needs to be set up "exclusively... for the promotion of social welfare." And the IRS's own regulations explicitly state that "the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office." To enforce this, the application form for 501(c)(4) status asks: "Has the organization spent or does it plan to spend any money attempting to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any person to any federal, state, or local public office or to an office in a political organization?"

Some groups reported to the IRS that they would not spend money on elections, but then reported to other government agencies that they had. You cannot tell one federal agency that you spent millions to influence elections, and tell another federal agency that you spent no money to influence elections, and have both statements be true. Making a material false statement to a federal agency is not just bad behavior, it's a crime. It is a statutory offense under 18 U.S. Code Section 1001. The Department of Justice indicts and prosecutes violations of this statute all the time; I used to as U.S. attorney.

But no matter how flagrant the false statement, no matter how great the discrepancy between the statements filed at the IRS and the statements filed at the election agencies, no matter how baldly the organization's activities belie its answers, the IRS never makes a referral to the Department of Justice. The result: no investigations.

No one is suggesting that conservative groups should have their First Amendment rights limited (or other groups, for that matter -- liberal groups were also singled out by the IRS for further review based on certain keywords). No one has a First Amendment right to lie to a federal agency, in order to claim an improper tax status in order to avoid legal disclosure requirements on political spending, and thereby receive undue tax benefits. That's a criminal false statement and possibly a fraud.

Evelyn Leopold: Is Justice Possible For North Korea's Victims?

Evelyn Leopold: Is Justice Possible For North Korea's Victims? 2014-04-19

What to do about torture, rape, political prison camps and other atrocities in North Korea? A UN investigative panel says the isolated country is a "totalitarian state without parallel in the contemporary world" and its abusers must be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

Three members of the inquiry commission, mandated by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, presented their 400-page report -- along with witnesses- at a session of the UN Security Council.

It was the first time the body dealt with human rights abuses in North Korea rather than its nuclear ambitions. The informal meeting was closed to the media.

China, which keeps North Korea alive by closing its borders to defectors, did not attend the meeting. Neither did Russia, an indication the Security Council would not refer North Korea to the ICC in the near future, anyway. Both countries have veto power in the 15-nation Council.

Up to 100,000 people in camps

But Michael Kirby, the retired Australian jurist who headed the year-long inquiry, said nine of the 13 attending were favorable to an ICC referral and the others asked questions about how they could help.

"If ever there is a case about referral of a matter to the ICC, it's hard to think of a more appropriate case for referral," he said, citing 80,000 to 100,000 people in brutal political camps.

He also suggested sanctions on individuals most responsible for the crimes, which could include Kim Jong-un himself, the supreme leader. But this too requires Security Council approval which is unlikely.

Still, Kirby, in an hour and a half news conference, wanted an open vote on North Korea, saying that despite the prospect of a Russia-China veto, there should be not be a deal behind closed doors.

It had to be "done upfront and those who take that step must be held accountable." Asked repeatedly about Russia and China, he said, "One should not be too impatient."

Nothing worse today than North Korea

Kirby, accompanied by commissioners Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia and Sonja Biserko of Serbia, said he was well aware that the Council was dealing with conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic, Ukraine and Crimea. (See photo below)

"In order of magnitude, in order of the suffering, in order of the duration, the situation in North Korea is the gravest of these cases"

"Enough is enough!"

Among those testifying was Shin Dong-hyuk who was born in a prison camp and wrote a book, Escape from Camp 14, about his defection. He recalled how he witnessed the execution of his mother and sister.

Beating preferred to starvation When it came time for punishment, he said, "Starving is unimaginable pain, so I chose the beating," according to Council members.

Another witness was Teruaki Masumoto, whose 24-year-old sister was abducted from the Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan 36 years ago, Kyoto News correspondent Seana Magee reported.

"The DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) has inflicted suffering and sorrow on the victims of abduction and their families," he said. "These abductions should rightfully be considered crimes against humanity and terrorism."

Kirby said among the abductees from Japan were young school girls, brought to North Korea on the flimsy pretext to help understand Japanese idioms and language.

North Korea is under a slew of sanctions for its nuclear tests, which China approved in the Security Council. They target cash transfers and luxury items, travel and shipping firms, among other measures.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who attended the session, said in a statement.

"Given this extraordinarily severe repression, it would be unconscionable for the Council to continue limiting its work on North Korea to the nuclear issue. The ICC was created to stand with the victims of such atrocities."

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador, who chaired the event along with Australia and France, said:

"These first hand accounts -- horrific stories of torture, rape, forced abortions and forced infanticide, extermination and murder -- paint a chilling picture of the regime's systematic and remorseless repression of its citizens."

When the report first came out, North Korea and China said that defectors were not seeking political asylum but entered illegally for economic reasons and some were engaged in theft and robbery.

Now what?

North Korea is a not a member of the ICC so only the Security Council can refer the case to that court.

If the resolution is ever presented and fails because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, the case could go to the 193-member General Assembly, which could set up independent tribunals, although the difficulties would be profound and expensive.

But for Kirby, the appeal to the Security Council was to make sure the issue did not sink "into the black hole of inattention"

2014-04-19-nkoreakirby.jpg Commissioners Marzuki Darusman, Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko (UN photo)
Glen Browder: How Would Southerners Describe The South To Outsiders?

Glen Browder: How Would Southerners Describe The South To Outsiders? 2014-04-19

• If American Southerners had to describe the South to someone not from the South, would they offer positive or negative descriptions of the region?

• Among their descriptions, which aspects of the South would they articulate?

• Would native Southerners, converted Southerners, and non-Southerners (who live in the region) describe the South in different ways?

• Would there be any differences between White Southerners and Black Southerners, males and females, older and younger citizens, educated and not-so-educated individuals, rich people and those less-well-off, born-again Christians and non-born-again respondents, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives?

Residents of the American South are used to seeing their home region depicted in stereotyped derision. Some Southerners try to deal with such disparagement with various strategies, such as polite silence or impassioned rhetoric about their "New South" homeland. Often, "rebels" delight in such criticism; and they give as well as take in outrageous debate.

But how would most Southerners respond if they had an opportunity, in a reasonable conversation, to describe the South to outsiders?

Some of my political science colleagues recently reported the results of such hypothetical conversations at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. Scott H. Huffmon and Allie Briggs (both of Winthrop University) and Christopher N. Lawrence (Middle George State College) conducted a study among South Carolinians. In April, 2013, as part of the Winthrop Poll series, interviewers asked for responses to the following probe: "Imagine that you had to describe the South to someone who had never been to a Southern state in America in just two words or two very short phrases." The co-authors then coded the responses for substantive analysis.

Positive or Negative Self-Descriptions?

As might be expected, this survey elicited overwhelmingly positive comments about the South. Over two-thirds of the responses were positive and only about a fourth were negative. Combining first and second mentions, around 60% gave two positive terms or phrases; and only 14 percent offered two negatives.

The positive mentions related mainly to the region's people and culture (32 percent of first mentions) and quality of life (26 percent of first mentions). The respondents seemed ambivalent about the economy and government.

Using a scale from +2 (both first and second mentions of a positive nature) to -2 (both first and second mentions of a negative nature), the authors derived an overall positive score of +0.81 for their collective audience.

Natives vs. Converts vs. Non-Southerners.

The authors found, again expectedly, that native Southerners and converted Southerners (with mean scores of +0.84 and +1.06 respectively) had more positive evaluations than those who considered themselves non-Southerners (+0.21).

Race, Gender, Age, Education, Income, Religion, Party, Ideology.

Race was a significant divider among the respondents. African-Americans were more likely to offer negative terms and less likely to offer positive terms (mean score of +0.39) compared to Whites (+0.99).

Gender differences were insignificant; men (+0.78) and women (+0.81) scored substantially the same.

Age played a role. Older respondents had more positive views of the region, with each additional decade of age corresponding to an increase of +0.07 in the average score.

Education seemed to make no difference. No pattern appeared and there were no statistical differences in descriptions based on educational attainment.

Income produced complex and unclear patterns. A general trend suggested that higher incomes were associated with more positive evaluations; but the authors expressed little confidence because of the few respondents with high household income.

Religion also was of little value in distinguishing among these respondents. Born-again Christians had a net positive rating of +0.85 and non-born-again respondents had a score of +0.77.

Party was a divider. Republicans scored +1.22 and Democrats scored +0.56 (independents scored +0.67).

Finally, differences surfaced in terms of ideology. Very conservative respondents had an average positivity of +1.04 compared to a very liberal score of +0.29.

Conclusions.

My colleagues found that most of their respondents would describe the South positively; but there were important differences in how they would describe their region to outsiders. Natives to the region or those who have adopted a Southern self-identification were substantially more positive than those who have moved into the area but retain a non-Southern identity. There also were noteworthy patterns along racial, age, party, and ideological lines.

Commentary.

As a native Southerner, I found this study generally confirms what most of us might expect. But it does more. It provides statistical data under-girding these expectations. And I'm sure it will generate some strong responses from readers of this post.

AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern Politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every-other-year since 1978; and it has become a "main event" for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about fifty academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.

Stephen Hawking: Transcending Complacency On Superintelligent Machines

Stephen Hawking: Transcending Complacency On Superintelligent Machines 2014-04-19

As the Hollywood blockbuster Transcendence debuts this weekend with Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman and clashing visions for the future of humanity, it's tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction. But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever.

Artificial intelligence (AI) research is now progressing rapidly. Recent landmarks such as self-driving cars, a computer winning at Jeopardy!, and the digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana are merely symptoms of an IT arms race fueled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation. Such achievements will probably pale against what the coming decades will bring.

The potential benefits are huge; everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone's list. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.

Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks. In the near term, for example, world militaries are considering autonomous weapon systems that can choose and eliminate their own targets; the UN and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons. In the medium term, as emphasized by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age, AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation.

Looking further ahead, there are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved: there is no physical law precluding particles from being organized in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains. An explosive transition is possible, although it may play out differently than in the movie: as Irving Good realized in 1965, machines with superhuman intelligence could repeatedly improve their design even further, triggering what Vernor Vinge called a "singularity" and Johnny Depp's movie character calls "transcendence." One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilization sent us a text message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here -- we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not -- but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside small non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Center for Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute. All of us -- not only scientists, industrialists and generals -- should ask ourselves what can we do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.

______________________

Stephen Hawking is Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Physics at Cambridge and a 2012 Fundamental Physics Prize laureate for his work on quantum gravity. Stuart Russell is a computer science professor at Berkeley and co-author of "Artificial Intelligence: a Modern Approach." Max Tegmark is a physics professor at M.I.T. and the author of "Our Mathematical Universe." Frank Wilczek is a physics professor at M.I.T. and a 2004 Nobel laureate for his work on the strong nuclear force.

Dr. Peggy Drexler: Not All Women Get To Decide Between Opting Out And Leaning

Dr. Peggy Drexler: Not All Women Get To Decide Between Opting Out And Leaning In 2014-04-19

The Pew Research Center released a report showing that, following a long-term decline, the number of stay-at-home moms is on the rise. Nearly 30 percent of American mothers with children under 18, Pew found, do not hold a job outside the home, up from 23 percent in 1999. On the surface, these findings would seem to represent a defeat for Sheryl Sandberg and her "Lean In" cohorts: More stay-at-home moms means that more women are opting out, eschewing "having it all" in favor of a more "traditional" arrangement in which the husband earns the money and the wife raises the kids.

Or does it?

The thing about the conversations surrounding women and work is that they tend to center around the idea of choice, and the decisions women -- from the career girls embracing their potentials as breadwinners to the feminist housewives who are "having it all by choosing to stay home" -- are making. But choice isn't a factor for everyone. In fact, Pew's report doesn't point to any sort of victory for women at all. Quite the opposite, actually.

What it does point to is the fact that the choices for moms are increasingly limited. A growing number of non-working mothers, Pew found, are unmarried. The percentage of children raised by a stay-at-home mother with a working husband has fallen to 20 percent, from above 40 in 1970. That is, it's not the privileged elite staying home to raise the kids, but increasingly single women living in poverty.

And even among those stay-at-home moms who are married, six percent -- up from one percent in 2000 -- say they'd like to work, but either can't find a job or can't get hired. Others don't go back to work because of prohibitively high childcare costs. It doesn't help that salaries for women aren't rising in proportion to those for men; a Pew report from a few weeks back looked at the economic mobility of women compared to their parents and found women today earn less than their fathers did. The majority of men, on the other hand, out-earn their dads.

Indeed, the new findings are less about values than about economy. The new Pew report reveals that stay-at-home moms are younger, less likely to be white, less likely to have a college education, and more likely to have been born outside of the United States. 34 percent of them live in poverty. By contrast, those moms who choose to leave the workforce because they can afford to hovers around a mere 5 percent.

In the ongoing Mommy Wars, the stay-at-home mother has been, at turns, revered and demonized. But there's a third reality that rarely enters the discussion: Moms whose choices to do one or the other -- stay home or return to work -- are not really choices at all. The truth is that it's possible to use findings to satisfy a variety of agendas, to twist numbers to prove whatever point you're looking to make. And that the real story is often far more complex than the latest statistic. More women are staying home -- that's true. More women are working -- that's also true. But not all women get to decide between opting out or leaning in. That, as Pew has shown, is a luxury becoming increasingly rare.

James Zogby: What Democrats Must Do To Win In November

James Zogby: What Democrats Must Do To Win In November 2014-04-19

In this November's mid-term elections, the Democratic Party will be focused on winning back the governorships and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They lost decisively in these battleground states in 2010, giving Republicans the opportunity to institute far-reaching changes in programs, benefits, and regulations that for generations had provided economic security for the middle class.

As Democrats are currently debating their 2014 electoral strategies, not a week passes without an article appearing arguing what the party must do to regain lost ground in these critical states. Some Democrats make the case for doubling down on increasing voter turnout among those constituencies that have become the new base vote of the party: youth, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and professional/educated women. They make the case that this approach worked for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and so if these same groups can be energized again in the mid-term contests, Democrats can win in 2014. But although Obama won these same states in 2008 and 2012, it doesn't automatically convey that Democrats will win them in a non-presidential election year. National contests mobilize different voters than local races, and so it cannot be assumed that those who voted for President Obama will vote for a Democrat or even vote at all in more localized contests.

While I fully agree that these groups should be energized, I also believe that Democrats cannot afford to ignore the importance of reaching out to other groups of voters who can provide the margin of victory, especially in these important states.

According to the 2010 Census, over one-third of all residents in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from European and Mediterranean countries. Many retain a strong attachment to their heritage, belong to ethnic organizations and churches, and remain connected through their ethnic media. Many of them also have deep roots in the labor movement and in the Democratic party.

A decade ago, based on polling conducted by my brother John Zogby, I wrote "What Ethic Americans Really Think." What we found was that these ethnic voters embrace values that are at once progressive and traditional. They are progressive on the role of government in public education, health care, Social Security, and protecting the minimum wage and labor standards. At the same time, they are traditional in their attachment to their families, their heritage, and their communities.

These ethnic voters were once core constituents of the Democratic party, but along the way, we stopped talking to them and directing our message to them. As a result, we lost their support.

This disconnect came through quite clearly for me one night in 1984 at the National Italian American Foundation Gala in Washington, DC. The evening featured speeches by Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan.

Mondale spoke first. His speech had nine applause lines -- most came when he mentioned the name of his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. The rest of the speech was a litany of issues and pledges, as in: "I'm for the teachers..." and "I'm for unions..."

Ronald Reagan came next and after a pause began something like this:

"My grandmother, like yours, came to this country with nothing but her hopes and dreams. She worked her fingers to the bone, believing in the promise of America that some day one of her own could run for president of this great country. I stand before you the beneficiary of her hard work, the fulfillment of her dreams."

I left that night knowing that Reagan would win the Italian vote -- and he did. And I left troubled because the speech he gave was one that Democrats had given when I was growing up. It evoked themes of family, heritage, hard work and the values and promise of America. It represented the messages we had lost.

In reality, Mondale had the better program to ensure progress for middle class ethnic voters. But he wasn't talking to them in language that showed he understood their identity and their values. Over the years, the disconnect has only grown.

This November, Democrats will have chance to reconnect with these ethnic voters and win support from them while still courting other key groups. It is not an either-or proposition. Immigration reform, expanding health care coverage, creating good jobs, promoting women's rights for equal pay and opportunity, improving public education, and protecting workers rights are issues that affect us all.

We just have to broaden our appeal and expand our base by speaking directly to older immigrant groups, as well as to newer immigrants -- white ethnics, as well as African Americans and Latinos.

European and Mediterranean want to be recognized and respected. And because they are connected through their churches, clubs, and media it's not that difficult to reach them. If we stop treating ethnic voters as if they were an undefined mass and speak to them as descendants of Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, and Lebanese immigrants whose history we celebrate and whose values we embrace, we can win them back. They were once Democratic voters and there is no reason why they can't be again.

Paul Abrams: Tom Cotton Wants To Make Medicare Doubly Dead... Attacks From Two

Paul Abrams: Tom Cotton Wants To Make Medicare Doubly Dead... Attacks From Two Fronts 2014-04-19

It is not on his website; it is not in his campaign platform. But, do not let this stealth candidate fool anyone: Republican Senate candidate Tom Cotton (R-AR) really wants to kill Medicare. So much so, that he attacks it on two different fronts.

First, by repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare, he votes to make Medicare become insolvent in 2016, as it was destined to do.

Solvency is greatly improved from the insolvency date that was projected before enactment of the Affordable Care Act . This legislation improved Medicare's financing by reducing the rate of increase in provider payments, phasing out overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans, and increasing Medicare payroll taxes for high-income individuals and couples. Repealing the Affordable Care Act, would move up the insolvency date to 2016. [Emphasis Added].

By contrast, Obamacare extends Medicare's solvency to at least 2026, an additional decade.

But, that was not enough for this anti-Medicare warrior. Cotton also voted for the Ryan budget that scraps Medicare's guaranteed benefits and replaces them with vouchers for seniors to purchase health insurance on exchanges. (Vouchers... exchanges... hmmm, sound like anything you know that Cotton voted to repeal?)

Of course, killing Medicare would only partially satisfy Cotton. He would like to see the demise of Medicaid, and he has a two-pronged attack against that as well. Repealing Obamacare would throw more than 100,000 Arkansans off of Medicaid for which they are now qualified. This is an vicious attack on the working poor.

Then, for his double-whammy against Medicaid, Cotton votes to "block grant" Medicaid to the states. Sounds benign, doesn't it? Who would object to getting a "grant" in a big "block"?

The "block grants" he voted for are cleverly designed to decrease in value over time -- just like the Ryan vouchers he voted to replace Medicare.

Think of that. Of the ~74 million children in the United States, ~43 million are covered by Medicaid.

That is not all. About 60 percent of nursing home costs for the elderly are covered by Medicaid. Yes, Medicaid, not Medicare.

So Tom Cotton not only wants to reduce seniors' health care coverage when they are ill but not infirm, and then follows that up with a "sorry, too damned bad" when they need nursing home attention.

Of course, he will never, ever, say that that is what he wants to do. Heavens, no.

But, if it were up to Tom Cotton, Medicare would be doubly dead.

All his sweet words are not going to provide a single medication, a single doctor's visit, a single surgical procedure or a single night in a nursing home for our nation's senior citizens.

Chris Weigant: Friday Talking Points - Our 4/20 Acronym Contest Challenge

Chris Weigant: Friday Talking Points - Our 4/20 Acronym Contest Challenge 2014-04-19

Three hundred of these columns? To coin a phrase... far out, man.

We'll get to patting ourselves on the back in a bit, but first we'd like to propose a party game for this weekend's big 4/20 festivities across the land. So put this in your (metaphorical) pipe and smoke it.

The rules for this contest are pretty simple. First, you've got to picture a day in the future when the Weed Wars are completely over, with marijuana reform having won the biggest victory of all: a complete change in the federal government's viewpoint. Not just rescheduling, but descheduling, in other words. The feds throw in the towel and decide to treat marijuana not as a dangerous and illegal drug, but as a regulated vice like tobacco and alcohol. In other words, total victory for the reformers.

OK, got that image in your mind? Here's where you need to get creative. If marijuana is descheduled, what would happen to it, in terms of the federal government? Well, they would take it away from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and hand it off to the official "vice control" agency. But (and here's where the contest comes in) then they'd have to rename this agency.

The obvious choice would be to add it to what used to just be called "ATF" or sometimes "BATF" -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. This name was expanded a while back to include explosives, making "BATFE." Now, the easiest way to change the name gives us a rather strange acronym for the new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives, and Marijuana: "BATFEM." Um... we're not sure that's an improvement over "Batgirl," really.

So our challenge is to come up with a better acronym. The rules: you can use either "marijuana" or "cannabis," and you can change "bureau" to "agency" or "commission" or any other governmental collective noun. This means you can add an M or C to the core letters A, T, F, and E; and then use a B or A or C (or whatever) at either end. Got that? So who has a better acronym than BATFEM for the real end to marijuana reform: what to call the bureau or agency that would federally regulate marijuana? This once seemed like pie in the sky -- too much to even hope for -- but is now within the bounds of possibility. So scramble those letters, and post your entries in the comments! Get creative!

As we've noted in these pages for the past few months, 2014 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for marijuana reform. The Colorado and Washington experiments are proceeding apace, the Attorney General is now actually "cautiously optimistic" about the success of these experiments, and the only real question people are asking is "which state will be next?" Alaska may move first, as full legalization is on the ballot there in August.

However, not everyone is on board (just to get serious for a moment). The head of the Drug Enforcement Agency tried his hand at a little scaremongering in front of Congress, warning that with legal marijuana edibles lying around, there was an increased risk of dogs eating it with harmful consequences. The prompted one of the most brutal takedowns of such propaganda we've ever read (from the Washington Post), which provides a long list of dogs mercilessly killed by drug raids gone horribly wrong. It's not for the faint of heart, and neither is this equally-brutal takedown which lists 13 human victims killed by Drug War hysteria.

In non-marijuana news, Vladimir Putin has finally responded to my April Fool's Day column (well, not really...) by insisting that Alaska is too cold for Russia to want to annex: "Is Alaska really in the Southern Hemisphere? It's cold there, too. Let's not get hot-headed." No word yet on any response (hot-headed or not) from Sarah Palin.

What else? The Pulitzer awards were handed out to the reporters which covered the Edward Snowden story, surprising exactly nobody. The federal government decided -- after getting some justifiably bad press -- they would no longer attempt to collect questionable "debts" that were over 10 years old. Here's just one of the stories of the folks caught up in this effort:

Mary Grice, a federal worker who lives in Takoma Park, Md., never got the refunds she was expecting to see in her mailbox this year. The government seized her checks because of a $2,996 debt that was supposedly incurred under her father's Social Security number. Her father died in 1960, when she was 4, and her mother received survivors' benefits thereafter.

But 37 years passed between when the Social Security agency says it overpaid someone in the Grice family and when Mary Grice's refund was taken. She was unable to find out from the agency exactly who received the overpayment -- her mother or perhaps her father's first wife, both of whom are no longer living.

There's a word for this sort of thing: Biblical. "Visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons," to be blunt, should not be the policy of the federal government, and we're glad someone woke up and realized this.

We've got some idiocy from Republicans to highlight in the talking points, but here is one item up front, just because. Scott Brown, former senator from Massachusetts, would now like to become the future senator from New Hampshire (after getting beaten by Elizabeth Warren in the Bay State). Speaking at a rally for Brown was former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who made a rather bizarre pitch that tried to tie Senator Jeanne Shaheen (the Democrat Brown is challenging in New Hampshire) to other Democratic senators, saying: "She votes with Elizabeth Warren. She votes with [Ed] Markey. She is the third senator from Massachusetts." Um, really? You really think that line's going to work to promote an actual former senator from Massachusetts? I guess John Sununu thinks New Hampshire voters are pretty dumb.

And, finally, some non-idiocy from the Republican Party of Nevada. At their party convention last weekend, they decided to jettison the planks of their party platform which opposed same-sex marriage and abortion. This is an attempt to move the party away from these hot-button social issues, and it bears watching to see if the GOP in other states decides to follow Nevada's lead or not. We're guessing "not," but we could always be wrong...

 

Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Obamacare had another very good week, but we're going to get to that in the talking points as well, so we'll just mention it here in passing.

John Kerry had a pretty good week as well, pulling together a fragile agreement to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether it'll work or not, but the surprise was that anything was agreed to at all -- expectations that Kerry could deliver were pretty low, before the announcement.

And while it's not exactly award-worthy, we have to at least mention the fact that Chelsea Clinton is pregnant. This is going to be a photo-op goldmine for Hillary, for the next few years. "This is my family" images with Baby Clinton should be seen as both inevitable and soon-to-be-adorable, at this point. Like I said, the news that Hillary will be a grandmother isn't exactly award-worthy, but it will indeed positively influence her upcoming campaign.

Instead, this week (and in advance of the 4/20 celebrations), we're giving out the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week more for a long-term effort than for any news made this past week (although he did have some good new quotes, as previously pointed out).

Attorney General Eric Holder is, quite obviously, a man who is "evolving" on the subject of marijuana laws. His evolution is far from complete, one hopes. But it is worth pointing out the changes he has made in both attitude and in federal law enforcement priorities over the past year. Holder was painted into a corner by the new Colorado and Washington laws, and he dithered and stalled for just about as long as he could get away with. But then he announced that the state-level "laboratories of democracy" experiments which legalized recreational marijuana would go forward without heavy interference from federal agencies. He made a list of rules that would have to be followed to avoid a federal crackdown, giving some clear guidance on the issue. He could have chosen a far different route, but -- to his credit -- he didn't.

Holder has since begun to address some of the other problems in federal law which surround the marijuana issue. He told banks it would be OK with him for marijuana businesses to open bank accounts (lessening the fear of federal prosecution for "money laundering for drug dealers"). He is actually showing quite a bit of flexibility on marijuana -- more flexibility than America has seen since the 1970s, in fact (what archaeologists call the "pre-Nancy Reagan era").

Eric Holder still has far to go. He has balked at rescheduling marijuana, which would end the ridiculousness of federal laws treating marijuana as more dangerous than methamphetamine. Holder could accomplish this with a stroke of his pen, but he is punting the decision to do so to Congress. Holder knows full well that medical research is almost impossible to now do on marijuana, and rescheduling could take a big step towards solving this problem, but he refuses to do so for purely political reasons.

Nonetheless, Holder still deserves the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award, this 4/20 week. The steps he has taken on his evolutionary road are important ones, and he could easily have taken a much harsher position on each of them. Nobody could mistake Eric Holder for a pro-marijuana reformer at this point, but he is also neither a rabidly anti-marijuana absolutist. He is trying to accommodate a changing situation by slowly revamping the federal government's attitude on marijuana. For now, this is enough to earn him some praise. He's got many more steps to take along this path, but for the decision on Colorado and Washington alone, Holder wins our "looking back at the past year" 4/20 edition of the MIDOTW.

[Since he doesn't provide direct contact information, you'll have to congratulate Attorney General Eric Holder via the White House contact page, to let his boss know you appreciate his efforts.]

 

Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

In keeping with this theme, we're going to award Patrick Kennedy this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. Kennedy used to be a House member from Rhode Island. After leaving office, he founded a group which calls itself "Smart Approaches to Marijuana," which aims to strike a sort of "centrist" pose on the issue, along the lines of: "the Drug War has gone too far, but legalization is still wrong." The reason they're in the news is that they're fighting against the Alaska ballot measure which would legalize and tax recreational marijuana.

The pro-reform folks held an amusing bit of political theater to point out Kennedy's hypocrisy, with a giant check for $9,015 -- the amount Kennedy had accepted from the alcohol lobby in his short stay in office. The purpose of this check, the political director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol said, was to offer it as a contribution to the anti-reform effort, if they could disprove these three statements: "a person is much more likely to overdose on alcohol than marijuana, long-term alcohol consumption causes more deaths than chronic marijuana use and violent crimes are committed by drunken people far more often than by people who are high." The chair of the pro-reform campaign tossed down the gauntlet: "We decided to present them with a challenge that really strikes at the heart of the issue. They are going to spend the next four months trying to scare people into thinking marijuana is so dangerous it simply cannot be legal for adults. Yet the fact is marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society."

So, if anyone can prove that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol, the pro-marijuana group will contribute the same exact amount that Patrick Kennedy got from the alcohol lobby to their opponents. That's some pretty admirable political theater, we have to say. In fact, the Alaska Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol deserves their own Honorable Mention, as they point out why former Representative Patrick Kennedy is worthy of this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.

[We were going to provide contact information for Kennedy's group, but we decided it could be misinterpreted as a measure of support for them, and we certainly don't want to give that impression, so you'll have to look Patrick Kennedy's group up yourselves, to let him know what you think of his actions.]

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 300 (4/18/14)

Three hundred! Woo hoo!

I certainly never thought, when I wrote the first one of these columns, that I'd still be doing so seven years in the future. But here we are, for the 300th time. These columns began (and continue) with a simple idea: "talking points" are not in and of themselves a bad thing. The reason why a lot of Democrats don't like them is that Republicans are much better at them than Democrats ever seem to be able to manage.

Republicans all get their talking points before the weekend, and they then appear on the political talk shows and -- almost word-for-word -- repeat the same points, over and over again. You barely even need to pay attention to which Republican is using them, in fact, because they are all singing from the same songbook, in unison.

Democrats, to be charitable, just aren't that disciplined. But the idea of talking points (or "soundbites" or "bumpersticker slogans" or whatever else you want to call them) is nothing more than a neutral tool in the political toolbox. Talking points, to put it another way, are not Republican or conservative, or inherently evil. They are a way to communicate -- and what you communicate is up to you.

Democrats have gotten somewhat better at this sort of thing, in our humble opinion, than they were in 2007 when this column began. We take no credit for this, because our egos are simply not that large. But choosing words wisely and getting in a zinger to make your point indelibly in the public mind are skills which always need honing. Hence the 300 columns.

This week's offerings deal mainly with Obamacare and the Republican War On Women. In preface to the Obamacare segment, here is a great ad now running up in Alaska which does an excellent job of defending the Obamacare program. Other Democrats campaigning this fall, take note, because this is a great example of how to make the issue work for you. For the rest of you, sit back and enjoy, as always.

 

1   And counting

We confidently predicted this two weeks ago in this space. And always remember those crucial last two words, Democrats.

"President Obama announced today -- once again -- that the number of signups on the Obamacare exchanges has risen dramatically. Two weeks ago, the number was at 7.1 million, even though most were expecting roughly a million less than that. Last week, the number was up to 7.5 million. This week, it topped 8 million. President Obama is right. The law is working. It is now impossible to deny. Eight million people have signed up on the Obamacare exchanges -- and counting."

 

2   No other reason than political spite

We're going to let President Obama have this talking point. He's right in pushing this -- the denial of Medicaid expansion could become a very potent argument for Democrats this year, as is already happening in Virginia. This Obama quote comes from his announcement about hitting the 8 million figure:

This does frustrate me. States that have chosen not to expand Medicaid for no other reason than political spite. You've got 5 million people who could be having health insurance right now at no cost to these states -- zero cost to these states -- other than ideological reasons they have chosen not to provide health insurance for their citizens. That's wrong. It should stop. Those folks should be able to get health insurance like everybody else.

 

3   All kinds of good news

I wrote about this earlier this week, in more detail. This has been the best week for Obamacare stats yet. In fact, it's been the best week overall for Obamacare since the law passed. So point it out!

"The statistics on Obamacare just keep getting better and better, no matter how much Republicans would like you to ignore them. The big news was that 8 million people -- and counting -- have signed up on the Obamacare exchanges, which is a full million more people than the original estimate. The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that 12 million Americans will have insurance this year alone -- people who would not have been insured if Obamacare didn't exist. The C.B.O. also pointed out the program is covering more people, but the costs are coming down -- their new estimate is that Obamacare will save another $100 billion in the first decade than previously thought. Major insurers are now signaling that they are going to expand their offerings in the Obamacare exchanges next year -- which is a big vote of confidence from the industry. And finally, Gallup announced that in the states which accepted the Medicaid expansion with their own exchanges, the uninsured rate dropped three times faster than it did in the states which didn't. States which joined in Obamacare fully dropped their rate to 13.6 percent uninsured, while states which didn't were still at 17.9 percent uninsured. The numbers are starting to come in, folks, and so far every single one of them proves Obamacare is working as it was designed to do. Obamacare got all kinds of good news this week, in fact."

 

4   And the Republicans still have... nothing

This is almost too funny for words.

"House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy just announced that the House Republicans -- who had planned to unveil their magic proposal to replace Obamacare this April -- will be indefinitely delaying this announced rollout of the GOP plan. As Bloomberg reports, 'the Republicans had said they would release the outlines of their proposal to replace President Barack Obama's 2010 health-care law over the two-week congressional break later this month at town-hall meetings with constituents. Instead, a Republican leadership aide said the rollout will occur at an unspecified time later this year.' Later in the article, aides are quoted saying 'April wasn't intended to be a formal rollout of a bill, rather a discussion about ideas,' and 'lawmakers are still working toward a policy consensus.' So let's just review the record, shall we? Four years ago, Obamacare passed. Since that time, the Republicans have offered up nothing -- no replacement bill at all -- to replace it with. They have had all the time in the world, but they cannot agree on anything even among themselves. So let's be blunt. Obamacare is working. There is no Republican replacement bill. After four years -- two full House terms -- the Republicans in the House have precisely nothing to offer the American people as a replacement. That is the choice America will have this fall: continue with the 'Can't-Do' Congress, or throw these slackers out of office."

 

5   Fighting for low wages

This one is pretty unbelievable, folks.

"The governor of Oklahoma just signed a law which actually bans raising the minimum wage across the state. It also bans any effort to provide employees vacation days and sick leave, just for good measure. This is truly shocking, especially since it goes against what is supposed to be a bedrock belief of the Republican Party: local governmental control is always better than bigger government. This new law will block any city in the state from raising their own minimum wage, and -- even worse -- will block a citizens' initiative that was heading for the ballot this year. Republicans are scared to put this on the ballot -- they are scared of what the voters actually think about it. So much for letting the people decide, eh? That's an interesting political slogan to run on, isn't it? Republicans: fighting to keep your wages low!"

 

6   Traditional gold-digging?

And finally, an update on the ongoing War On Women. Because it won't fit into either of these talking points, here is a funny Jeff Danziger cartoon on the issue, as well.

"Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum wrote an extraordinary opinion piece this week, which could provide a glimpse into what Republicans mean about all that 'traditional family' stuff. Schlafly's answer to the pay gap between men and women is that it's a good thing, and that maybe the best thing for women, quote, is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap, unquote. The reason Schlafly wants a bigger pay gap? So that women can all get married to men who make more money than they do. No, seriously. That's what she's saying: women need to marry men who make more, and that can't happen if the pay gap disappears. So that's the Republican answer to all of modern women's problems: marry a rich guy, and be happy. This is pretty laughably outdated thinking, especially when you consider that the Republicans are trying to 'reach out' to women voters this year."

 

7   More War On Women hijinks

This quite obviously falls into the "you just can't make this stuff up, folks" category.

"Republican outreach to women, or War On Women? You decide. In Alaska, a state Republican legislator had to apologize after editing the title of a press release to read -- and I am not making this up -- 'Smart and Sexy: Legislature Encourages Hospitals to Promote Breastfeeding.' Sexy? Really? That's your message to promote breastfeeding? Wow. Down in Texas, meanwhile, someone in a prominent Republican consulting firm registered a political action committee with the charmingly frat-boyish name: 'Boats 'N Hoes PAC.' This is apparently the name of a song from a Will Ferrell movie. The PAC was swiftly dissolved -- after the press noticed it -- but not before Texas Democrats got the final word: 'There's no defending the use of a derogatory and offensive term like 'hoes.' How can women possibly take the GOP rebranding effort seriously? Their consistent contempt towards women is simply unforgivable.' Just another few stories from the frontlines of the War On Women, I guess -- each more jaw-dropping than the last."

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning To Wait In The Dark

Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning To Wait In The Dark 2014-04-19

Holy Saturday reminds me that one has to learn how to be Christian. When I first came to Christian faith, the day meant nothing to me. It was the blank day between the high dramas of Good Friday and Easter, the day when nothing happened. Jesus was dead and buried. Everyone had gone home to get some rest. In the morning he would rise triumphant from the grave but meanwhile there was nothing to do. The church service -- if there was one -- lasted no more than fifteen minutes. It seemed rude to go shopping after that, or to check the movie listings. So I puttered the day away, rattling around the house doing nothing much while the clock ticked toward Easter. Holy Saturday was a placeholder, an empty set of parentheses, a waiting room for a train that would not come until morning.

Later, when I became a priest, Holy Saturday was the day when members of the congregation came to the church for private confession. There were never more than four or five of them, who showed up at discreet intervals so they did not even see each other's cars in the parking lot. The list of names changed every year. Whatever was going on with them, the general confession they said with everyone else on Sunday mornings was not helping. They needed to find their own words for what they had done, or what had been done to them. They needed to say those words out loud so they could hear them without anyone else's words covering them up.

My only job was to listen, pronouncing some of the sweetest words in the prayer book at the end: "Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins." After that I waited in the church for the next person to come, which was often as long as an hour. Sometimes I lay down on a pew, which was how I began to imagine Jesus lying on a stone ledge in the dark. I had been to Jerusalem, so I knew how tombs looked in those days: low holes in rock walls, with narrow bunks inside to hold the dead bodies until the flesh on them was gone and the bones could be gathered up for safe-keeping.

That was where Jesus spent Holy Saturday: in a dark hole in the ground, doing absolutely nothing. It was the Sabbath, after all. His friends had worked hard to make sure he was laid to rest before the sun went down. Then they went home to rest too, because that was what they did on Saturdays. Once it was clear that there was nothing they could do to secure their own lives or the lives of those they loved, they rested in the presence of the Maker of All Life and waited to see what would happen next.

Though Christians speak of "witnesses to the resurrection," there were no witnesses. Everyone who saw Jesus alive again saw him after. As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. Whatever happened to Jesus between Saturday and Sunday, it happened in the dark, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. It happened where no one but him could talk about it later, and he did not talk about it -- at least not so anyone could explain it to anyone else.

That is what Holy Saturday has taught me about being Christian. Between the great dramas of life, there is almost always a time of empty waiting -- with nothing to do and no church service to help -- a time when it is necessary to come up with your own words and see how they sound with no other sounds to cover them up. If you are willing to rest in this Sabbath, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face and none of your self-protective labors can do you one bit of good, then you may come as close to the Christ as you will ever get -- there in that quiet cave where you wait to see how the Maker of All Life will choose to come to you in the dark.

Anthony W. Orlando: The Best Monetary Policy Is Strict Financial Regulation

Anthony W. Orlando: The Best Monetary Policy Is Strict Financial Regulation 2014-04-19

On Wednesday, in her first speech on monetary policy, Janet Yellen, the new chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, pointed out a discouraging paradox: In recent years, private-sector forecasters have been surprisingly accurate at forecasting changes in the unemployment rate, but they have been equally inaccurate when forecasting changes in the federal funds rate, the baseline interest rate controlled by the Fed.

Since interest rates supposedly have a strong effect on unemployment, how can forecasters be so right about unemployment if they're so wrong about interest rates?

Three economists at the Bank of International Settlements -- Morten L. Bech, Leonardo Gambacorta, and Enisse Kharroubi -- have been studying this question, and coincidentally their results were published this week in the journal International Finance.

Bech and his colleagues amassed a dataset of interest rates and economic output for 24 industrialized countries from 1960 to today. Over that time period, these countries experienced 78 recessions, of which 34 were the result of financial crises like the one we experienced a few years ago. In each recession, the BIS economists measured how much the central bank lowered interest rates to stimulate recovery -- and then how long it took for the economy to recover its lost output.

Unsurprisingly, they found that "normal" recessions -- the ones without a financial crisis -- were much less severe. On average, they resulted in an output loss of 1.9 percent, which it took the country 3.8 years to recover. Financial crises, on the other hand, resulted in an output loss of 8.2 percent, which it took 5.1 years to recover.

What was perhaps more surprising was the fact that "accommodative" monetary policy -- i.e. lowering interest rates -- had no effect on the economy after a financial crisis. This wasn't the case with normal recessions. Typically, the more the central bank lowered the interest rate, the faster the economy recovered its lost output. But not so with financial crises.

In times like these, interest rates simply don't matter as much as they normally do.

That doesn't sound like good news for Janet Yellen. What's a central banker to do?

Fortunately, the BIS economists did find one thing that accelerated recovery from financial crises: private-sector deleveraging. After a normal recession, it doesn't seem to matter whether households and firms pay down their debt, but after a financial crisis, it significantly speeds up economic growth.

As luck would have it, the Federal Reserve has a tool at its disposal that can reduce the economy's reliance on debt. It's called the "capital requirement," and it refers to the difference between what a bank owns and what it owes.

When a recession strikes, asset prices fall, and since banks own a lot of assets, their value goes down. If they go down too much, they can fall below what the bank owes to its lenders and depositors, meaning it's basically bankrupt. It doesn't own enough to pay what it owes.

So the Fed sets a minimum capital requirement. The more capital a bank is required to have, the more it has to own relative to what it owes. It's a buffer. The bigger the buffer, the more room asset prices have to fall before the bank becomes bankrupt.

Unfortunately, banks don't like high capital requirements. They want to rely on debt. Why use your own cash when you can use somebody else's cash? Lower capital requirements are cheaper -- but they're also more dangerous because it's easier to go bankrupt when you owe so much relative to what you own.

Banks argue that high capital requirements restrain lending because they can't borrow as much debt to fund their loans, but another paper published in the latest issue of International Finance debunks this myth. In it, the German economists Claudia M. Buch and Esteban Prieto study the behavior of German bank lending for the past 44 years, and they find that banks with higher capital actually issue more business loans.

This doesn't come as a surprise to those of us who understand how banks actually operate. They don't lend based on how much debt they can borrow. They lend based on how many loans they can sell. The more, the better. The only question is, will they fund the loans with cash or debt?

Janet Yellen may have her work cut out for her in this post-financial-crisis economy, but there is a way to stimulate the economy and prevent future crises. It all starts with financial regulation.

==========

This op-ed was published in Friday's South Florida Sun-Sentinel.