March 27, 2014

Yesterday, a new one-and-a-half-minute economics video from Ezra Klein's newly formed Vox Media hit the internet. In it, Vox Executive Editor Matt Yglesias explained why the current level of the national debt is neither dangerous nor worrying:

He concludes that "debt just isn't a problem right now," because inflation is currently near historic-lows.

The video stirred up some pretty angry responses from people who think that debt is a problem right now. Red State's Erick Erickson claims some of the video is incorrect and calls Yglesias a liar who is spreading "left-wing propaganda."

Erickson contends that: "[Yglesias] tries to explain the National Debt and out of the gate begins with a lie. He claims the national debt is $5 trillion less than the U.S. Treasury says it is."

But Yglesias is pretty clear that he's excluding debt owed from one arm of the government to another, and only including federal debt held by the public. That is completely rational. After all, money the government owes to itself is simply money moved from one side of the government balance sheet to the other. There's nothing dishonest or disingenuous about citing the lower figure that only includes debt held by the public, especially given that Yglesias was clear about this.

Erickson then contends that: "[Yglesias] uses deficit and debt interchangeably."

But the debt is just the sum of the deficit over many years. So there's nothing wrong with treating them as two manifestations of the same thing so long as you understand that one is an annual figure and the other is the total. Yglesias' point is that the reason to worry about deficits is when they lead to elevated inflation and interest rates, something which we are not currently experiencing. This bases the assessment of debt and deficits around the real world consequences of debt and deficits, instead of hand-wringing over the size of the number, which seems to be what Erickson would rather have us do.

Erickson's next point is that: "[Yglesias] claims the U.S. government can never run out of money."

This, of course, is true. The U.S. government is a monetary sovereign that controls its own state-backed fiat money. Does Erickson think this is untrue? Does he think that the U.S. government can run out of paper and electronic dollars? Does Erickson think that the U.S. is back on the gold standard and therefore can run out of money?

Erickson concludes: "This isn't education. It is not explaining. It is left-wing propaganda. It is also sponsored by General Electric. Why is General Electric sponsoring left-wing propaganda?"

Now, to be fair, I'm not sure Yglesias' video will change many minds. It crams in a baffling quantity of information into a relatively short period. Viewers might on first viewing find it more confusing than enlightening, especially given that the mainstream narrative of the terribleness of government debt and deficits has become so deeply ingrained as "common knowledge."

But everything in the video is technically correct. At the very least it has succeeded in sparking a public debate on the issue of the national debt. And it is very definitely not left-wing propaganda, no matter how much Erick Erickson and other debt fearmongers would like it to be.

3:03 a.m. ET
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Islamic State is advancing toward Damascus, the Syrian capital, and seizing Assyrian Christian towns near the Turkish border, abducting at least 220 Christians and destroying irreplaceable works of art. But it is also facing setbacks, including an offensive by Kurdish fighters, new U.S.-led airstrikes, and — according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — a cash flow problem.

"They need money," Observatory head Rami Abdulrahman tells Reuters. "Ever since the airstrikes hit their oil facilities and the Turkish border has been harder to cross, they have increased taxes and looked for ways to make money." Things have gotten so tight, he added, that ISIS has started selling scrap metal from bombed factories and other industrial wreckage in eastern Syria.

ISIS has also reportedly run low on foreign hostages to offer for ransom. The group "gets a material amount of its funding from ransom payments," outgoing U.S. Treasury sanctions czar David Cohen told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. "And it would be to all of our mutual benefit to cut off that source of funding."

last night on late night
2:10 a.m. ET

On Thursday night's Late Night, Seth Meyers broke out his wedding video. Guest and former Saturday Night Live colleague Will Forte had given a toast/roast at Meyers' wedding rehearsal dinner, in character as Hamilton Whiteman, one of Meyers' professed favorite Forte characters at SNL. The 30 seconds of the off-color speech is pretty funny — and here's hoping the remaining 5:30 that Meyers couldn't air on network TV somehow shows up on YouTube. —Peter Weber

when animals attack
1:53 a.m. ET

Residents in one Dutch town are living in fear after a hostile eagle owl has attacked dozens of people.

The owl has been terrorizing the Purmerend area, 12 miles north of Amsterdam, The Associated Press reports. It has been concentrating around the Prinsenstichting assisted-living complex for people with disabilities, and a spokeswoman said at least 20 people have been injured there, with some needing stitches. One victim, Niels Verkooijen, told a Dutch news program being attacked "was like having a brick laced with nails thrown at your head."

City officials are warning residents not to approach the angry owl, said to be between 24- and 30-inches-tall. Because eagle owls are a protected species, the town has applied for a permit to catch it, but in the meantime, people are asked to carry umbrellas with them during the evening, when the owl is most active. Eagle owls are not known for being so aggressive in the wild, causing officials to believe that it was once held in captivity.

1:30 a.m. ET

Researchers in Britain have found well-preserved fragments of wheat DNA in an ancient peat bog submerged off the Isle of Wight, suggesting that traders brought wheat to the area about 8,000 years ago.

Scientists believe that traders came to Britain and "encountered a less advanced hunter-gatherer society," the BBC reports. Vincent Gaffney, a professor at the University of Bradford, adds that "it now seems likely that the hunter-gather societies of Britain, far from being isolated, were part of extensive social networks that traded or exchanged exotic foodstuffs across much of Europe."

The DNA discovery was well-received by scientists, who say the fragments have given them a much clearer understanding of what happened as hunter-gatherers began growing crops. "The material remains left behind by the people that occupied Britain as it was finally becoming an island 8,000 years ago, show that these were sophisticated people with technologies thousands of years more advanced than previously recognized," says Garry Momber of the Maritime Archaeology Trust.

this is awful
12:55 a.m. ET

Veterinarians from around the world have come together to save Magnus, a lion cub who was born into captivity at a circus in Spain and horribly mistreated for the first few months of his life.

Magnus was separated from his mother when he was only days old, and purposely starved so he wouldn't grow and could appear in photos with visitors who paid 20 euros each, ABC Los Angeles reports. He was fed just yogurt and bread, and when he became extremely ill the circus owner took him to a vet and asked that he euthanize the cub. Spanish officials found out what happened and gave Magnus to an animal sanctuary, where it was discovered that his bones and muscles were stunted and his esophagus was so narrow he was unable to eat solid food.

This horrible story has a better ending: Once the four-month-old cub's plight was shared, vets from around the globe offered to help, and donations came pouring in for his treatment. Magnus underwent a necessary surgery, one of many he will need, and is now eating chicken cut into small pieces. His veterinarian said that unfortunately, the cub will be chronically ill for the rest of his life and will never be able to live on his on in the wild. Remember that the next time you go to the circus.

February 26, 2015

Every year, millions of tons of Saharan dust flies 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to the Amazon basin, where it settles in and helps plants grow.

Since 2007, NASA's Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) has been monitoring the particles as they travel from Africa to South America, and the plumes can be spotted from space. On average, 182 million tons of dust leaves Africa annually, and of that amount about 27 million tons make it to the Amazon. Once there, it replenishes phosphorous lost from surface runoff and flooding. "Using satellites to get a clear picture of dust is important for understand and eventually using computers to model where that dust will go now and in future climate scenarios," NASA research scientist Hongbin Yu said. —Catherine Garcia

Eye of the beholder
February 26, 2015

More than any Supreme Pontiff in the modern era (at least), Pope Francis is comfortable speaking off the cuff in public. That verbal spontaneity has earned the pope fans, "but going off-script has its pitfalls," BBC News says in its 60-second roundup of Franciscan "gaffes." If you follow the pope, you've probably heard about a few of these statements, and one or two of them should probably have remained inside Pope Francis' head ("strawberries on the cake"?). But seriously, who could hold it against a man for sticking up for his mother? —Peter Weber

Foreign affairs
February 26, 2015

The Afghan refugee who became famous after her photograph was put on the cover of National Geographic is getting attention again for another picture taken 30 years later.

Sharbat Gula was photographed in 1984 at the Pakistani refugee camp she lived in, and she continues to reside in Pakistan. She grabbed headlines on Tuesday when national media published her computerized national identity card (CNIC), a document that she should not have as a refugee. CNICs allow Afghans to purchase property and open bank accounts, and usually can be procured through bribes, The Guardian reports. A spokesman for the National Database and Registration Authority said that Gula’s card was discovered and banned in August, and four officials have been suspended for their involvement. He also said the authority has found 22,000 other illegal cards.

Millions of Afghans have crossed into Pakistan since the Soviets invaded in 1979, and more than 2.5 million are thought to still be in the country. As evidenced by the anger over Gula having a CNIC, many Pakistanis are ready for them to return to Afghanistan. "We need them to leave Pakistan because we are badly suffering," Hamid-ul-Huq, who represents Peshawar, told The Guardian. "All our streets, mosques, schools are overloaded because of them. It is time for them to leave Pakistan honorably." Human Rights Watch asked the government this week to stop pressuring refugees to leave the country, and a former commissioner for Afghan refugees said that Afghanistan could not handle such a large influx of refugees coming back all at once.

the saga continues
February 26, 2015

Nope, Kanye West's Twitter account wasn't hacked on Thursday: He really did apologize to Beck for the whole jumping-onstage-and-later-talking-serious-smack debacle at the Grammys.

After saying he was sorry to Beck, West decided to make amends with Bruno Mars:

Since the Grammys, West has been making the rounds trying to soften his image, and admitted to a radio station host last week that Beck's Morning Phase, which he didn't listen to before the show, was "kind of good." Now that the Kanye West Apology Tour 2015 is over, can a Yeezus/Beck/Mars collaboration be far off?

justice is (finally) served
February 26, 2015

Out of the more than 7,000 Virginians who were involuntarily sterilized by the state between 1924 and 1979, only 11 are still alive. On Thursday, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to give each survivor $25,000.

The Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act aimed to "improve the genetic composition of humankind by preventing those considered 'defective' from reproducing," The Associated Press reports. The legislation served as a model for other states and Nazi Germany, and across the country, 65,000 Americans were sterilized in 33 states. Virginia's eugenics law was upheld in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. writing for the majority, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

In Virginia, six state institutions conducted the sterilizations. Lewis Reynolds, 87, was sterilized at the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble Minded when he was 13; they thought he had epilepsy, but he just had temporary symptoms after being hit in the head with a rock. The retired Marine didn't discover he had been sterilized until he was married and trying to start a family with his first wife, who ended up leaving him once she found out he couldn't have children. "I think they done me wrong," he told AP. "I couldn't have a family like everybody else does. They took my rights away."

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