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

9:23 p.m. ET
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By next year, federal regulators could enact new rules preventing people from getting within 50 yards of spinner dolphins off the shores of Hawaii, putting an end to popular tourist activities like swimming with dolphins.

The National Marine Fisheries Services says that spinner dolphins, which feed at night and usually gather in the same general area every day, are not getting enough rest and are becoming stressed due to so many people taking boat tours that drop them off next to pods. The dolphins sometimes appear to be awake even when they're asleep, as half of their brain remains awake so they can surface and breathe. Dozens of companies operate dolphin tours on Maui, Kauai, Oahu, and the Big Island, and because 98 percent of spinner dolphins in Hawaii are just off the shore, it's easy for them to find the animals. The ban would cover waters out to 2 nautical miles, The Associated Press reports.

Ann Garrett, assistant regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service's protected resources division for the Pacific Islands, told AP the dolphins are constantly on high alert because people are always approaching them, and scientists are afraid the stress might interfere with their ability to reproduce. The agency won't make a final decision on a ban until next year, but Garrett says if it is enacted, it won't put people out of business. "They could still do snorkeling for other reasons — it's just not setting their people within a pod of dolphins or within 50 yards of a dolphin," she said. Catherine Garcia

7:38 p.m. ET
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile early Wednesday morning off its east coast, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reports.

In July, South Korea said an attempted launch by North Korea failed in its initial flight stage. Yonhap reports the missile landed inside Japan's Air Defense Identification Zone, and a U.S. official said the missile made it 300 miles before it crashed into the sea. The United Nations has banned North Korea from any use of ballistic missiles, and the launch comes just a few days after the start of annual military exercises between the United States and South Korea. Pyongyang believes the exercises are rehearsal for an invasion, and vowed retaliation. In January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, and said it was the first time the country used a hydrogen bomb. Catherine Garcia

6:43 p.m. ET

Steven Hill, best known for playing District Attorney Adam Schiff on Law & Order, died Tuesday morning at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He was 94.

The cause of death has not been revealed, and his wife, Rachel, said he suffered from several ailments. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle to Russian immigrant parents, he became interested in acting at the age of six after landing a role in a production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the 1940s, he took classes at the Actors Studio in New York with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, and soon landed a part in a Broadway play. Over the course of his career, he appeared in more than two dozens movies, and in 1966, starred in Mission: Impossible as undercover team leader Daniel Briggs. Hill left the show after one season because he was an Orthodox Jew, and the shooting scheduled interfered with his observation of the Sabbath, The Associated Press reports.

Hill spent a decade on Law & Order, leaving the show in 2000. "Steven was not only one of the truly great actors of his generation, he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met," Law & Order producer Dick Wolf said in a statement. "He is also the only actor I've known who consistently tried to cut his own lines." While portraying Schiff, Hill read up on the law, saying in a 1999 interview, "I believe the audience needs to feel you understand what the heck you're talking about and they can tell if you don't." He is survived by his wife, Rachel, four daughters, and five sons. Catherine Garcia

3:12 p.m. ET

Eve Babitz was Los Angeles' greatest bard. Promiscuous but discerning, the bombshell with a brain bonded with Joan Didion and bedded Jim Morrison. A writer first and party girl second, Babitz presented in reverse until she sickened from what she called the "squalid overboogie." People took her penchant for presenting herself as trivial seriously; her books went out of print, and an accident that left her with serious burns over half of her body turned her into something of a recluse.

Babitz is finally getting the literary comeback she deserves, but she's still best remembered for posing nude with Marcel Duchamp while they played chess. She was 20, and he was 76. And in this interview with Paul Karlstrom for the Archives of American Art in June 2000, she explained why she did it: to punish her married boyfriend Walter Hopps for not inviting her to a party.

BABITZ: ... [Photographer Julian Wasser] wanted me to be part of this deal and I wouldn't go to the party with him when he wanted to take me because Walter didn't invite me.

KARLSTROM: So, what were you, Walter's girlfriend or something?

BABITZ: I thought I — I deserved respect.

KARLSTROM: I would say. This story is much more interesting than —

BABITZ: That's right. I was 20 years old and I wasn't invited to this party. So, I took these pictures. That was it. You know, I got to Duchamp. We started playing chess. [Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

Duchamp won several times, but she didn't care. In fact, she was kind of over it.

BABITZ: I wanted my cigarettes. I wanted my glasses. I wanted my clothes on; I wanted Julian to take me to a Chinese restaurant.


BABITZ: I knew exactly the one he wanted to go too. Chow Yung Fat. It's down on Main Street.

KARLSTROM: So you really weren't all that comfortable?


KARLSTROM: But it was worth it.

BABITZ: It was worth it because Walter came in and he dropped his gum.

KARLSTROM: So Walter actually came in to see how it was going.


KARLSTROM: And he didn't even know you were there.


KARLSTROM: Wow. So you won.


KARLSTROM: You didn't win at chess.


KARLSTROM: But you won in terms of taking control of the situation.

BABITZ: That's right.

KARLSTROM: I mean, did you think of it a little bit that way? Because I'm thinking of motivation.

BABITZ: I said, "Hello, Walter" and he dropped his gum.

KARLSTROM: Literally?

MS. BABITZ: Yes. He always chewed Double Mint gum. [Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]

This descriptive lightness and jolly insistence on her own frivolity make Babitz a pleasure to listen to when she's speaking off the cuff (and an absolute dream to read, where she sneaks in structural flourishes that knock you silly with their unsuspected lyricism). If you're up to it, read the whole oral history; it's a marvelous thing. Better still: Read her books. On Aug. 30, Slow Days, Fast Company will be back in print. Lili Loofbourow

2:48 p.m. ET

Italy is a good place to live right now if you're about to turn 18. On Sept. 15, the Italian government is launching an initiative to encourage Italian youths' interest in culture by gifting its newly-minted adults 500 euros (about 565 U.S. dollars) on their 18th birthdays.

That chunk of change, dubbed a "culture bonus," can be used for "books, concert tickets, theater tickets, cinema tickets, museum visits, and trips to national parks," The Independent reported. Parliamentary undersecretary Tommaso Nannicini said he hopes the effort reminds Italian teens "how important cultural consumption is, both for enriching yourself as a person and strengthening the fabric of our society."

An estimated 575,000 teens are eligible for the gift this year, which will cost the Italian government about 290 million euros total. Becca Stanek

2:22 p.m. ET

CNN reported Tuesday that U.S. news organizations, including The New York Times, may have been targeted in a hack allegedly sanctioned by Russian intelligence. U.S. officials with knowledge of the situation told CNN that these hacks are thought to be connected to previous cyber breaches focused on the Democratic Party.

News organizations can "yield valuable intelligence on reporter contacts within the government, as well as communications and unpublished work with sensitive information," CNN pointed out, leading U.S. officials to believe this is another tactic for Russian spy agencies to gain insight into American politics.

The breach is reportedly under investigation by the FBI, and The New York Times has apparently "brought in private sector security investigators who are working with U.S. national security officials to assess the damage," CNN said.

The New York Times did not confirm either the hack or the FBI investigation. "Like most news organizations we are vigilant about guarding against attempts to hack into our systems," New York Times Co. spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told CNN. "There are a variety of approaches we take up to and including working with outside investigators and law enforcement. We won't comment on any specific attempt to gain unauthorized access to the Times." Becca Stanek

1:28 p.m. ET
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Donald Trump has a mere 1-point lead on Hillary Clinton in the deep-red state of Missouri, a new Monmouth University poll released Tuesday revealed. Among likely voters, 44 percent in the state support Trump, with 43 percent backing Hillary Clinton, 8 percent backing Libertarian Gary Johnson, and 5 percent still undecided.

There's good news for Trump in Utah, though: He holds a 15-point lead on Clinton in the most recent Public Policy Polling poll, with 39 percent to Clinton's 24 percent despite his unpopularity with Mormon voters. Even though over 60 percent of the state's voters view Trump unfavorably, "there's not much of a chance that Utah's actually going to go Democratic this year," PPP president Dean Debnam said.

The Monmouth University poll was conducted by telephone between Aug. 19-22, reaching 401 Missouri residents; the margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percent. The PPP poll was conducted by telephone between Aug. 19-21, reaching 1,018 Utah residents; the margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percent. Jeva Lange

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