Sunday, January 23, 2011

For clues to the economy, look to gun sales and other offbeat data

Lots of routine economic statistics are released each month –- unemployment rates, home sales, etc.

But hoping to get beyond the numbers that everyone else chews on, one Wall Street prognosticator delved into a more eclectic sampling of data, such as gun sales and demand for silver coins.

Such “off the grid” indicators support the widely held notion that the U.S. economy is mending slowly, Nicholas Colas, chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group in New York, wrote in a report to clients. But they also point to some potentially troublesome undercurrents.

On the positive side, sales of pickup trucks have risen at a 20% annual rate for the last few months. Pickups are often bought by small businesses, which bodes well for that critically important sector.

Likewise, a growing number of workers who leave companies these days are quitting rather than being fired, indicating that they’re either finding other jobs or are confident of being able to in the future.

But the data also suggest potential danger over what Colas refers to as “consumer security” –- basically, underlying economic and societal concerns that could serve as long-terms drags on the recovery.

For example, gun sales have risen from a long-term rate of about 8 million a year to the current 14 million, according to Colas. Analysts initially attributed the rise to fear of tougher gun-control laws after the election of President Obama. But the continuing climb two years into his term points to a “deeper sense of unease,” be it over government regulations, crime or some something else, Colas wrote.

In the same vein, a jump in demand for silver coins suggests a “fundamental lack of confidence among enough people in the population as to the long-term soundness of the dollar.”

And a rise in the number of people on food stamps –- currently about 43 million people, or 14% of the U.S. population –- points to the deep strains on lower-income people.

“A consumer base -– even one at the lower end of the economic ladder -– with fundamental
concerns over food security and affordability or personal safety is not the ‘dry tinder’ of a strong economic bounce back,” Colas wrote.

Saner Gun Laws NYTimes Editorial

It is widely believed in Washington that there is no chance the gun lobby and the new Republican majority in the House would ever permit passage of the modest ideas for tightening America’s absurdly lax gun laws that have surfaced since the massacre in Tucson.

That may be true, but it is no reason for supporters of reasonable gun regulation not to put up a fight. Nor is it an excuse for the lack of principled presidential leadership on this issue. We are still waiting for President Obama to fulfill his promises on gun safety.

Mr. Obama ran for the White House calling for the restoration of the ban on assault weapons that Congress irresponsibly let expire in 2004. He has not pursued that goal, and so far, his voice is missing even from the call for less ambitious but necessary changes in gun laws. The country needs Mr. Obama to put his support behind a two-pronged approach that is directly relevant to the dynamics of gun violence we all saw at play in Tucson.

It begins with a proposed ban on the big volume ammunition magazines that added to the carnage not just in Arizona but also a long line of other mass shootings, including at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney, a staunch gun rights advocate, said last week that it might be time to reinstate the magazine-size rule, which was part of the discarded assault weapons ban. That would save lives without interfering with hunters or violating any constitutional right.

Mr. Obama ought to tell that to Congress and the public in his State of the Union address this week. The National Rifle Association will counter that Americans need high-capacity clips for self-defense. We’d like to hear how many times in the real world the life of an American, other than a police officer or a combat soldier, was endangered because of an inability to fire 30 shots in rapid succession without reloading. What we do know about is the grim, repetitive reality of mass shootings.

The pending gun agenda also includes plugging dangerous holes in the background check system to make it harder for people with emotional and drug abuse problems, like the Tucson shooter, to obtain weapons. Despite eroding public support for more strict rules, like a handgun ban, there is broad agreement on the need to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands.

Although facing a likely primary challenge from the right when he runs for re-election next year, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, voiced his continued support for banning assault weapons in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.

Another Republican, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, opposes banning the enlarged magazines. But on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Mr. Coburn expressed an interest in a bipartisan effort to create a new legal standard to “make sure people who are mentally ill cannot get and use a gun.” His interest in finding common ground is encouraging even though for the moment, at least, the fix is unclear.

One thing that could be usefully addressed is that many state records on disqualifying involuntary commitments and adjudicated mental instability are not being submitted to the federal background check system. Records of drug abuse or addiction also rarely make it into the system, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun policy group.

Asked last week about the administration’s positions on these matters, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the White House was focused on “the important healing process.” That is part of the president’s duties. So is protecting public safety.


Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture

The “princess phase.”
So inevitable is this period in the maturation of girls today that it should qualify as an official developmental stage, worthy of an entry in Leach or Brazelton: first crawling, then walking, then the urgent desire to wear something pink and spark­ly. Whether we smile indulgently or roll our eyes at the drifts of tulle and chiffon that begin accumulating in our daughters’ rooms around age 4, participation in these royal rituals has come to seem necessary, even natural.

Yet the princess phase, at least in its current hyper-feminine and highly commercial form, is anything but natural, or so Peggy Orenstein argues in “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” As she tells the story, in 2000 a Disney executive named Andy Mooney went to check out a “Disney on Ice” show and found himself “surrounded by little girls in princess costumes. Princess costumes that were — horrors! — homemade.
How had such a massive branding opportunity been overlooked? The very next day he called together his team and they began working on what would become known in-house as ‘Princess.’ ” Mooney’s revelation yielded a bonanza for the company. There are now more than 26,000 Disney Princess items on the market; in 2009, Princess products generated sales of $4 billion.

Disney didn’t have the tiara market to itself for long. Orenstein takes us on a tour of the princess industrial complex, its practices as coolly calculating as its products are soft and fluffy. She describes a toy fair, held at the Javits Center in New York, at which the merchandise for girls seems to come in only one color: pink jewelry boxes, pink vanity mirrors, pink telephones, pink hair dryers, pink fur stoles. “Is all this pink really necessary?” Orenstein finally asks a sales rep.

“Only if you want to make money,” he replies.

The toy fair is one of many field trips undertaken by Orenstein in her effort to stem the frothy pink tide of princess products threatening to engulf her young daughter. The author of “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,” among other books, Orenstein is flummoxed by the intensity of the marketing blitz aimed at girls barely old enough to read the label on their Bonne Bell Lip Smackers.
“I had read stacks of books devoted to girls’ adolescence,” she writes, “but where was I to turn to under­stand the new culture of little girls, from toddler to ‘tween,’ to help decipher the potential impact — if any — of the images and ideas they were absorbing about who they should be, what they should buy, what made them girls?”

She turns, like many a journalist before her, to the child pageant circuit, the world of sequined “cupcake dresses” and custom-made “flippers” (dental prosthetics that disguise a gap-toothed smile) that has proved irresistible to reporters since the killing of the 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey in 1996. To her credit, Orenstein recognizes this as well-trodden ground.
“It would be easy pickin’s for me to attack parents who tart up their daughters in hopes of winning a few hundred bucks and a gilded plastic trophy; who train them to shake their tail feathers on command, to blow kisses at the judges and coyly twirl their index fingers into their dimpled cheeks,” she writes. “But really, what would be the point? That story has been told, to great success and profit.”

Such meta-observations, which appear throughout the book, are part of Orenstein’s method: she argues with herself, questions her own assumptions, ventures an assertion and then has second thoughts — all in full view of the reader.
At times, her assiduously cultivated ambivalence seems to paralyze her; she gets stuck between competing concerns, unable to say anything definitive about what she believes. By and large, however, Orenstein’s reflexive self-interrogation is a good match for her material. It allows her to coax fresh insights from the exhaustively analyzed subject of gender and its discontents.

In the case of child beauty pageants, Orenstein offers a shrewd critique of why media exposés of the phenomenon are so perennially popular. They “give viewers license, under the pretext of disapproval, to be titillated by the spectacle, to indulge in guilty-pleasure voyeurism,” she observes.
“They also reassure parents of their own comparative superiority by smugly ignoring the harder questions: even if you agree that pageant moms are over the line in their sexualization of little girls — way over the line — where, exactly, is that line, and who draws it and how?” Orenstein allows us to watch her struggle with these questions, and when she arrives at a few answers, they feel well earned.

Orenstein finds one such enlightening explanation in developmental psychology research showing that until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex. “It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best,” she writes. “That’s why 4-year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage,’ become the self-­appointed chiefs of the gender police.
Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.” For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.

Orenstein is especially sharp-eyed on the subject of what comes after the princess phase, for in the micro-segmented world of marketing to children, there is of course a whole new array of products aimed at girls who begin to tire of their magic wands. These include lines of dolls with names like Moxie Girlz and Bratz: “With their sultry expressions, thickly shadowed eyes and collagen-puffed moues, Bratz were tailor-made for the girl itching to distance herself from all things rose petal pink, Princess-y, or Barbie-ish,” Orenstein notes.
“Their hottie-pink ‘passion for fashion’ conveyed ‘attitude’ and ‘sassiness,’ which, anyone will tell you, is little-girl marketing-speak for ‘sexy.’ ”

As Orenstein forges on, braving Toys “R” Us, the American Girl doll store and a Miley Cyrus concert, the reader may occasionally wonder: Is she reading too much into this? After all, it’s just pretend; it’s just play. “To a point I agree,” Orenstein half-concedes, equivocal as ever. “Just because little girls wear the tulle does not mean they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.
Plenty of them shoot baskets in ball gowns or cast themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella.” By this point the reader knows what’s coming. “Yet even if girls stray from the prescribed script, doesn’t it exert its influence? Don’t our possessions reflect who we are; shape, even define, our experience?”

The author’s process of restless self-examination continues, all the way to the book’s open-ended conclusion. Orenstein has done parents the great favor of having this important debate with herself on paper and in public; she has fashioned an argument with its seams showing and its pockets turned inside out, and this makes her book far more interesting, and more useful.
Because the thing about a phase is: kids grow out of it. (The marketers are counting on that.) But parents’ internal deliberations about what’s best for their children are here to stay.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”

Another happy day in gun loving USA!

Wal-Mart Shooting Leaves 2 Dead

PORT ORCHARD, Wash. — A shootout in front of a Walmart in Washington state left two people dead and two sheriff's deputies wounded Sunday afternoon, a sheriff's spokesman said.

One of the dead was a man who shot at deputies,the other victim was a young woman.

4 Detroit Police Injured in Shootout

DETROIT — Four police officers were slightly wounded and their assailant killed on Sunday after a man walked into a police precinct and “began shooting indiscriminately,”,

California's 'big one' might be a megastorm

Scientists say such a storm, occurring every 100 to 200 years, would inundate the Central Valley, trigger widespread landslides and cause flood damage to 1 in 4 homes.

California's "big one" may not be an earthquake at all, but a devastating megastorm that would inundate the Central Valley, trigger widespread landslides and cause flood damage to 1 in 4 homes in the state.

The prospect of such a storm was raised this month by scientists predicting the consequences of an "atmospheric river" of moisture from the tropical Pacific hitting California with up to 10 feet of rain and hurricane-force winds over several weeks.

A team of more than 100 scientists, engineers and emergency planners used flood mapping, climate change projections and geologic flood history to simulate a hypothetical storm so intense that it occurs only every 100 to 200 years. They presented their findings in Sacramento during a conference sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Emergency Management Agency.

The study isn't meant to be a forecast that such a fierce storm is imminent, but rather a push by scientists to publicize the risk of a catastrophe that they say is unfamiliar to most Californians.

In the scenario — powerful back-to-back storms — floods could require about 1 1/2 million people to evacuate and cause more than $300 billion in property damage. The economic loss would be four times that of a very large earthquake.

The simulation was based on the most severe storm event on record in California, a 45-day series of storms that started in December 1861 and, according to the Geological Survey, caused such extensive flooding that the Sacramento Valley was turned into "an inland sea, forcing the state Capitol to be moved temporarily from Sacramento to San Francisco, and requiring Gov. Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration."

Geologists studying prehistoric flood deposits found evidence of even larger storms that occurred about every 300 years. Scientists project storms of that magnitude to become more frequent and powerful as a result of global warming.

Scientists said the study highlights the need to prepare for the large-scale devastation of powerful winter storms, which have received far less attention than the threat of earthquakes. Unlike a quake, which radiates from a single location, a megastorm would cause destruction spanning the entire state.

"We need to recognize that flooding here in California is as much of a risk as an earthquake," said Lucy Jones, chief scientist for the Geological Survey's Multi-Hazards Project. "These storms are like hurricanes in the amount of rain that they produce."

The exact effects of a colossal storm would depend on weather patterns that cannot be predicted until about a week before they strike. But the study identified some of the most vulnerable areas.

Los Angeles County, Orange County, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area would be especially susceptible to the floodwaters of overflowing rivers. A 300-mile-long expanse of the Central Valley would be underwater, with substantial losses of crops, livestock and urban structures. The rains would overwhelm much of the state's flood protection system, especially in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area, where levees aren't designed to withstand the flow predicted in such a storm.

Landslides would wash out key portions of roads, highways and railroads. Flooding would disrupt the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Power, water and sewer lines could sustain damage that would take months to repair.

"It's an extreme but plausible storm" that would become more catastrophic the longer it lasted, said Mark Jackson, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service's Oxnard office, who wasn't involved in the research but went to the conference. "Our landscape can really handle quite a bit of rain. But when you get two storms back to back, you reach saturation, and the flood control systems are pushed over capacity."

The study, which took two years to complete, was designed as a follow-up to a 2008 report by the Geological Survey in which researchers examined the potential effects of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake on the San Andreas fault in Southern California.

As a next step, meteorologists are working to develop a scale that would rank the intensity of California's extreme storms with categories like the ones used to classify hurricanes.

Senate in long recess as leaders seek to rein in Democrats' filibuster rebellion

Before the week is done, one of the longest single "days" in the history of the Senate is expected to finally come to an end.

Amid a long-running dispute over decades-old filibuster rules, Senate leaders have used a parliamentary trick to leave the chamber in a state of suspended animation - in reality adjourned since Jan. 5 but officially considered in a long recess that's part of the same individual legislative day.

This nearly three-week break has taken place in large part so leadership could hold private negotiations to consider how to deal with a group of Democrats agitating to shake up the foundation of the world's most deliberative body, right down to challenging the filibuster.

To the dismay of a younger crop of Democrats and some outside liberal activists, there is no chance that rules surrounding the filibuster will be challenged, senior aides on both sides of the aisle say, because party leaders want to protect the right of the Senate's minority party to sometimes force a supermajority of 60 votes to approve legislation.

Instead, rank-and-file lawmakers will receive pitches from Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who have been negotiating more limited changes, such as with "secret holds" that allow an anonymous senator to slow legislation. In addition, some modifications could be made to the way confirmations are handled for agency nominees who do not have direct roles in policymaking.

Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), both elected in 2008, have been pushing a never-before-tested option of changing the rules on a party-line vote and are considering demanding a vote on their proposal. That would require Vice President Biden, in his capacity as president of the Senate, to rule on whether the chamber can change its rules at the start of each new Congress.

"I'm waiting to hear. I'm told that the leaders are talking about possible changes and the way the floor works," Biden said in a brief interview while visiting the Senate last week. "I may have to rule, so I'm going to keep that opinion to me."

Neither Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) would comment on the status of the talks, which have effectively ground the Senate to a halt.

With the 47 Republicans united in opposing any changes to filibuster rules, Udall, Merkley and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), their most senior supporter, remained far short of the votes needed to nullify the rule known formally as "cloture," requiring 60 senators to vote yes to end debate so a final vote can be held. Many senior Democrats, who have watched the majority flip back and forth a half-dozen times in the past 20 years, balked at taking away minority rights, out of fear that Democrats could soon find themselves in the minority.

Moreover, while liberal groups such as and some unions such as the Communications Workers of America are supporting the Udall effort, the liberal coalition is far from united on the issue. Some large members of the AFL-CIO have been noticeably silent, while some abortion rights groups have publicly declared their opposition to changing filibuster rules. That, some Democratic aides said, is because in the 1990s and in the early days of the George W. Bush White House - when Republicans controlled both ends of the Capitol - these groups relied on their Senate Democratic allies and the 60-vote threshold to protect key rights such as Davis-Bacon wages for federal works projects and the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

The last time a change-the-filibuster debate occurred, the parties were on opposite sides. In 2005, then-Minority Leader Reid led the successful effort to defend the filibuster and rejected the idea that the Senate's rules could be changed in such a manner. This view holds that the Senate is a "continuing body" because only a third of its members are up for reelection every two years, as opposed to the House, where every member faces the voters every two years.

Republicans were trying to change the rules midyear, a position that Udall says is objectionable. Instead, his group of young senators points to several rulings by vice presidents of the past, Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey, in which they appeared to rule that the chamber's rules could be altered by a simple majority vote at the outset of each Congress.

That ruling, however, was never put into practice. Instead, that era's efforts at changing filibuster rules - driven by the Southern bloc's filibusters of civil rights legislation - took almost two decades to reach fruition, when in 1975 a large bipartisan group voted to lower the filibuster threshold from a two-thirds majority (67 votes if all senators appear) to 60 votes.

That rule change has led to the end of the old "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-style filibuster, as the onus is placed heavily on the majority to show up and deliver 60 votes. The minority no longer has to speak at length to stall legislation; it merely needs one senator on the floor to object to passing legislation or approving a nominee.

Udall wants votes on his proposals, particularly his "talking filibuster" requirement that would force the minority to hold the floor with lengthy debate but ultimately would not allow it to block a final simple-majority vote.

"We get back to the spirit of the filibuster," Udall said Saturday in a phone interview. "If the minority wants additional debate, they should be debating, not going home."

Yet even that change faces long odds. Instead, Udall and those in his camp may have to settle for some changes to secret-hold rules and an easier confirmation process for some nominees.

Paul Kane
Washington Post

Why I'm glad Keith Olbermann is gone

Former MSNBC host Keith OlbermannIf there was some strange parallel universe in which Keith Olbermann and I were members of Congress,
I suspect we would vote together about 99 percent of the time.
But when the "Countdown" host announced his abrupt departure from MSNBC on Friday night, I felt only relief.

First reactions to Olbermann’s exit have broken along lines as partisan as they were predictable. That the New York Post would respond to the news with glee and The Huffington Post with a gnashing of teeth was hardly a shock.

But back in the real world, I cannot imagine I am the only viewer who is basically simpatico with Olbermann's worldview, but who had come to find him and his show utterly insufferable. The glibness, the pomposity, the narcissism -- all these foibles had, of late, reached gut-wrenching proportions.

It was not always thus.
It is easy to forget just what the media landscape looked like in the early years of Olbermann’s tenure at the helm of "Countdown."
(He had, of course, had an earlier, unsuccessful stint at MSNBC, which culminated in one of the many enmity-filled partings that have dotted his career.)

The show began in 2003, when large swathes of the journalistic profession appeared to have been cowed -- not just by the Bush administration per se but by a jingoistic atmosphere that lingered too long after 9/11 and took many unwise forms.

In that environment, Olbermann was fresh, even daring. The show’s increasingly forceful liberalism through its early years made for some riveting TV moments, the best-known perhaps his 2006 takedown of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The freshness curdled soon enough.

In his farewell remarks on Friday, Olbermann proudly proclaimed that his show was "anti-establishment." In recent years, that description was a stretch, at best.

Everything from the increasingly contrived "Worst Person in the World" segments to the host’s persona -- a kind of an ersatz version of Walter Cronkite, with infinitely more "attitude" but infinitely less real authority -- had settled into a rut. Predictability and self-importance were the main features.

"Countdown" had a niche -- a profitable one for both the network and its host, who was rumored to have negotiated a $30 million four-year contract in 2008 -- and Olbermann apparently saw little need for change.

Meanwhile, his professed commitment to the questioning of authority all-too-evidently did not extend to himself. There were myriad stories about diva-like histrionics in front of -- and allegedly directed against -- staff. There were instances where his sneering at co-anchors had embarrassing public results.

But, more importantly, there was a years-long procession of pundits whose only apparent purpose was to confirm the correctness and brilliance of the host’s every utterance. The spectacle was one in which purportedly respectable journalists seemed to fall over themselves to play courtier to King Smug.

By last year, criticism of this trend had become so widespread that Olbermann responded, via a promo spot for the show. The ad, which showed the host proclaiming that "I ask a lot of these questions to find out whether or not I'm wildly incorrect about something," was unintentionally hilarious. The only "establishment" being challenged by then was the one that is charged with taking action against false advertising.

There was a bigger problem, too. Olbermann rose to prominence in large part through attacking other media figures -- most notably Bill O’Reilly -- for both their gloating self-regard and their rhetorical recklessness.

Olbermann’s claim to the moral high ground here was strictly relative. This is a man, after all, who once reported an allegation that Paris Hilton had been punched in the face under the tagline "A Slut and Battery." Hilarious, no?

Later silliness -- the risible condemnation of then-Senator-Elect Scott Brown as "an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, teabagging supporter of violence" -- only strengthened the impression that Olbermann had morphed into a mirror image of those he so often attacked.

The blogosphere is already aflame with suggestions that Olbermann’s departure is linked to Comcast’s impending takeover of NBC. Maybe it is. Petitions for his reinstatement are growing as I type. Maybe they’ll be successful -- though I doubt it.

In any case, for me at least, Olbermann’s act has long been threadbare. Goodnight and good luck, Keith -- and good riddance.

Niall Stanage is a New York-based writer and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign