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. John Aziz

Colbert Nationalism
4:40 a.m. ET

China is the world's second-largest movie-watching nation, after the U.S., and Hollywood regularly panders to Beijing so its movies will be allowed into China and win over its audiences, Stephen Colbert said on Tuesday's Late Show, citing The Martian as one example. Well, two can play at that game. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get a piece of that sweet — and sour — renminbi," he said, kicking off "Stephen Colbert's Pander Express," his "long-running first attempt to suck up to the Chinese censors."

And pander he did, mixing praise for the Chinese with loaded barbs, some of them in questionable taste (see Square, Tiananmen). How dedicated is Colbert to the sucking up? He almost died, choking on lamb face stew, just so a special guest could come out and save him... before urging the Chinese to watch The Late Show in Mandarin. Watch, learn, and occasionally cringe below. Peter Weber

Secretary of Explaining Stuff Explains
3:57 a.m. ET

In 2012, President Obama dubbed Bill Clinton the Secretary of Explaining Stuff, Stephen Colbert reminded Clinton on Tuesday's Late Show, and so he asked the former president to explain three things. First up was why Sen. Bernie Sanders is doing so well in the race against Clinton's wife, Hillary Clinton. "There are a lot of people all over the world who are really hacked off, that they think the system is rigged against them and the rich get all the gains," Clinton said, and they see Republicans doing well by rewarding candidates who run to the right so Democrats think "they will be even more effective if they move further to the left."

The other two questions were about Donald Trump, starting with why Clinton thinks Trump is doing so well on the Republican side. "Because he's a master brander, and he's the most interesting character out there," Clinton said. "It may have a short half-life, his campaign — I can't tell yet — but he's a master brander and there is a macho appeal to saying: I'm just sick of nothing happening, I make stuff happen, vote for me." The last question was about the rumor that Clinton called Trump and asked him to run, which would be "pretty smart, man," Colbert joked. Clinton said no, adding: "I get credit for doing a lot of things I didn't do." Watch the interview below. Peter Weber

Capital Punishment
3:12 a.m. ET

On Tuesday night, Texas executed its 11th inmate this year, killing 35-year-old Juan Garcia through lethal injection. Garcia admitted to killing Mexican immigrant Hugh Solano in Houston during a botched robbery in 1998, when Garcia was 18, but insisted it was an accident during a fight for the gun. Prosecutors say Garcia got just $8 from Solano. Despite Garcia's long rap sheet, Solano's widow asked the judge not to sentence him to death, saying she forgave him for the murder. She and her daughter were at the execution, weeping, NBC News reports, and Garcia apologized to them in Spanish before he died, saying: "The harm that I did to your dad and husband — I hope this brings you closure.... I never wanted to hurt any of you all."

Garcia was the third inmate put to death in the past week, following executions in Virginia and Georgia. Peter Weber

2:19 a.m. ET

Earlier this week on Facebook, Republican presidential candidate answered some questions from regular people. He told Michael, for example that he drives an electric Tesla sedan ("I am sure some left-wing environmentalists' heads are exploding"), and Anne that he lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. Dan asked if Carson's views on the Second Amendment have changed since last week's mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. Carson replied that he has cousins who were killed by gun violence in Detroit, and that "as a doctor, I spent many a night pulling bullets out of bodies." Then he added:

There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking — but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away. Serious people seek serious solutions. [Carson, Facebook]

Carson followed up Monday night's comments with an interview Tuesday morning on Fox News, where he suggested, as The New York Times puts it, that the students at Umpqua Community College "were overly passive." If an assailant pointed a gun at him, Carson told Fox and Friends, "I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say: 'Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.'"

Carson also said Tuesday that President Obama is wrong to visit the families of the victims in Oregon this week. If he were president, he said, "I mean, I would probably have so many things on my agenda that I would go to the next one." But hey, at least he didn't mention Hilter. Peter Weber

hard work pays off
2:06 a.m. ET
Darren McCollester/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The debate team from New York's Eastern Correctional Facility has major bragging rights, after beating the national debate championship team from Harvard.

In September, the inmates invited the Harvard team to the Napanoch prison for a friendly match. The Eastern Correctional Facility team was formed two years ago, and the men take debate classes taught by faculty at Bard College; about 15 percent of the inmates are enrolled in different courses through the Bard Prison Initiative. "Students in the prison are held to the exact same standards, levels of rigor, and expectation as students on Bard's main campus," Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, told The Associated Press. "Those students are serious. They are not condescended to by their faculty."

During the battle against Harvard, the inmates had to argue that public schools should have the right to turn away students whose parents came to the United States without documents. It was a stance the inmates didn't agree with, but they were able to come up with points Harvard wasn't expecting, AP reports, and a neutral panel of judges declared them the winners. The inmates have defeated teams from West Point and the University of Vermont, and the Harvard team appears happy to join their ranks, posting on Facebook: "There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend." Catherine Garcia

1:38 a.m. ET

Danish researchers have found that ovarian transplants could restore a woman's fertility after chemotherapy and radiation.

Women who undergo cancer treatment typically have a less than 5 percent chance of getting pregnant afterward, NPR reports. "Obviously the thing that interests them the most is to survive cancer," said Claus Yding Andersen, a reproductive physiologist who helped conduct the study. "But immediately after that they would say they are really interested in maintaining their fertility."

An ovarian transplant involves surgically removing all or part of one ovary, freezing it, then transplanting it back once cancer treatment is finished. Andersen and his team focused on 32 Danish women who had completed cancer treatment, had an ovarian transplant between 2003 to 2014, and wanted to become pregnant; 10 women had a total of 14 babies, with six conceived through in vitro fertilization. Andersen said the tissue can function for five to 10 more years, and there was no evidence that an ovarian transplant increases the risk of a recurrence of a woman's cancer. The study was published Tuesday in the journal Human Reproduction. Catherine Garcia

12:42 a.m. ET

In Moldova, criminal networks have made at least four attempts over the past five years to sell radioactive material, including bomb-grade uranium, The Associated Press reports.

During its investigation, AP found that while many middlemen have been arrested, their bosses have all escaped. A small group of Moldovan investigators trained by the U.S. government to break up the nuclear black market worked on the cases, including Constantin Malic. Malic told AP that in 2010, authorities were able to get a sawed-off piece of a depleted uranium cylinder that they believe may have been from Chernobyl (it ended up not being highly toxic). "We can expect more of these cases," he said. "As long as the smugglers think they can make big money without being caught, they will keep doing it."

In one case, a former KGB informant named Teodor Chetrus called one of Malic's sources, and said he was looking for a Middle Eastern buyer to purchase uranium. He was a middleman who hated the West, Malic said, and proclaimed "multiple times that this substance must have a real buyer from the Islamic states to make a dirty bomb." The informant made a deal to sell the bomb-grade uranium to a "buyer in the Middle East," AP says, but Chetrus wanted to ensure he was not an undercover agent. His boss was a man named Alexandr Agheenco, who lived in the Moldovan breakaway republic of Trans-Dniester. Agheenco decided not to sell the uranium all at once, instead dispensing 10-gram samples for €320,000 ($360,000) a pop. Agheenco gave his wife, Galina, the job of arranging a handoff of the uranium to Chetrus in Moldova. Police were waiting, and arrested Chetrus and Galina Agheenco after Chetrus took the uranium package she left in her Lexus; a Trans-Dniester police officer who smuggled the uranium to Galina Agheenco escaped and along with Agheenco, was untouchable in Trans-Dniester.

Tests found that the uranium was high-grade material that could be used in a nuclear bomb, and when Malic searched Chetrus' house, he found plans for a dirty bomb and evidence that Chetrus was working on a separate deal with an actual buyer (this deal with a Sudanese doctor was later broken up by a sting operation). Galina Agheenco received a sentence of three years in prison because she had a young son, and Chetrus was sentenced to five years; Galina Agheenco's sentence is up, and Chetrus was released early in December 2014. Catherine Garcia

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