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Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf is reflected on a table as he speaks about the office's annual Budget and Economic Outlook during an Oct. 2013 news conference at the Ford House Office Building in Washington. A Congressional Budget Office study released Thursday projects a slight increase in the 2014 budget deficit. (AP)

CBO Forecast: There's Good News And Bad News

by S.V. Date
Aug 27, 2014

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The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is giving both Republican and Democratic partisans fresh fodder for the talking points they've already staked out on the economy.

The country's gross domestic product, according to its new report, will grow at just 1.5 percent this year - proof, say Republicans, that President Obama and Senate Democrats have been unable to bring the country out of recession.

At the same time, the per-patient spending in Medicare actually decreased in the last year, a phenomenon CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf called "striking" - proof, say Democrats, that the cost-control measures in the Affordable Care Act are working, despite the GOP-led House's attempts to repeal the law.

Thursday's report is one of CBO's periodic forecasts about the federal budget and the economy. The group created a stir in February, when it projected that Obamacare would shrink the labor force because people would no longer feel compelled to work for an employer solely for access to health insurance.

Nothing quite as dramatic emerges from the new report, but it does contain a number of interesting tidbits.

Among those useful to Republicans:

  • This year's budget deficit will be $506 billion, $14 billion larger than it predicted this spring, thanks to a weaker-than-expected economy.
  • The labor market continues to be "slack," with an elevated unemployment rate and a decreased percentage of employees participating in the workforce.
  • Medicaid spending is up 15 percent over last year, largely because the expansion of that program to cover more poor people was also part of the ACA.

And among the nuggets Democrats can use:

  • The economy, which rebounded in the second quarter of this year after shrinking in the first quarter, should grow at a moderate 3 percent pace for the next couple of years.
  • Inflation should remain below 2 percent a year through the next decade.
  • The federal deficit, as a percentage of the economy, is under 3 percent - its lowest level since the financial crisis began, and should remain below 3 percent for the next four years.

Thursday's report does point out that, as a matter of policy, the CBO assumes existing law remains existing law when developing forecasts - even a law that is likely to change before the end of the year, like a package of tax breaks known as the "extenders."

Congress is almost certain to pass the dozens of large and small provisions benefiting businesses and individuals before its term expires in January - and when it does so, it will add about $100 billion a year to the deficit.

As these breaks are supported by both parties, neither party is likely to dwell on their cost.

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Danny Done, 26, worshipful master of the Queen Anne Masonic Lodge in Seattle. The fraternity is "a really interesting social network that's not online," he says. (NPR)

Freemasonry Still Alive And Well, And (Mostly) Men-Only

Aug 27, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Sam Roberts, most worshipful grand master of Washington State, presides over an outdoor ceremony. His wife, Vicky, says she doesn't mind that women can't participate in the Masons' ceremonies.

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The members of the Queen Anne Masonic Lodge near downtown Seattle are on the young side. The guy in charge is 26.

Danny Done, the lodge's worshipful master, is lounging on his designated chair in the room reserved for private ceremonies.

His title comes with a top hat, though he avoids putting it on — he says it makes him look dorky. But he does like other aspects of Masonic regalia, like his Templar sword. Done uses it to point to a diagram on the wall that charts out the different kinds of Masonry.

"Here, you have the first three degrees of Masonry," he explains, motioning to the chart. "Which gets you to, basically, the beginning step of this section, which is called the Scottish Rite. And the Scottish Rite was invented from a lecture series by a Scotsman in France."

Yes, one of America's oldest fraternities, the Masons, is still around. And in a conversation with Done, you quickly find they aren't nearly as secretive as you'd hoped — particularly in Washington. Rules in each state are set by a "Grand Lodge," and Washington's claims to be relatively liberal in the rules governing what can be shared about the organization's ceremonies.

And there's so much information on the Internet about those rituals, many Masons say, that there's little point in being mysterious about them.

Forging In-Person Connections In An Online World

For Done, the appeal of Freemasonry is pretty basic. "A lot of my best friends are here, and all of their friends typically come around, too, and it just becomes a really interesting social network that's not online," he says.

A generation ago, Freemasonry began to decline, and many of the fraternity's buildings around the country were being turned into movie theaters. Membership in the U.S. fell from almost 4.1 million in 1960 to about 1.3 million in 2012. While membership is still falling, those declines have been less steep in recent years.

"Twenty years ago, I would not have been optimistic," says William Moore, a scholar of American Freemasonry who teaches American Studies at Boston University. "I would have said, "Yes, they were relics of a time that's left behind.' "

But historically, he says, the fraternity does well during times of economic instability for men. The U.S. is in that kind of time right now.

And some millennials, Moore says, are looking for the kind of long-lasting commitment available in a lodge.

"They know that those men will be their brothers no matter what their economic structure is," Moore says. "So they know that they can change jobs five, six, seven times in their careers, but they won't be changing the lodge they belong to, they won't be changing the men who are their fraternal brothers."

On a warm Saturday, 150 brothers are on their lunch break in a private masonic park about an hour outside of Seattle. They're in the woods, but they're also wearing suits, because they're here for the outdoor version of the masonic initiation ceremony.

There are brothers here from Prince Hall lodges, which are historically African-American, as well as brothers from Canada. In fact, the grand master of British Columbia, Philip Durell, is here — his proper title is grand master of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient and Accepted Freemasons of British Columbia and Yukon.

Still 'Just Guys'

If you ask Durell about the fraternity's rule excluding women, he admits that it's "tough to defend." But, he says, the rule means a lot to the brothers. "Men behave differently when women are there. And they don't open up the same way as they will when it's just guys there."

A few lodges in the U.S. do initiate women, but they're not recognized by the more traditional masons. The organization instead points to special sister organizations for women, like the Order of the Eastern Star, and the fact that wives are often part of a lodge's social life — they just can't take part in the ceremonies.

So back at the Masonic Family Park, the women do crafts while the men hold their ceremony. Vicky Roberts, the wife, or "lady," of Washington State's grand master, says she doesn't resent being excluded.

"Men are generally not as social as ladies are," she says. "They get stressed out — they don't really make the time that the ladies do to connect with other men."

The men need that time, Roberts says. And besides, she adds, the women are probably having a better time in their part of the campground, eating and chatting, while the men spend the day in the woods, sweating in their suits.

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Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, LeBron James, Lindsay Lohan, Kermit the Frog and Conan O'Brien all got icily drenched for charity. (via YouTube)

Life After Ice Buckets: ALS Group Faces $94 Million Challenge

Aug 27, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Sam Roberts, most worshipful grand master of Washington State, presides over an outdoor ceremony. His wife, Vicky, says she doesn't mind that women can't participate in the Masons' ceremonies.

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The ALS ice bucket challenge continues to bring in huge donations this summer for efforts to cure and treat what's commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As of today, the viral campaign has raised more than $94 million for the ALS Association. That's compared with $2.7 million raised by the group during the same time last year.

Now the association faces a challenge of its own: figuring out the best way to spend all that money.

"It's amazing. It's perhaps a little overwhelming," says Barbara Newhouse, the group's president and CEO.

She says it's a huge responsibility, handling more money than they've ever had before.

"It's sort of like the lottery winner that receives a lot of money and four years later is looking in the mirror saying, 'What did I do with all that money? Where did it go?' " she says. "We don't want to be that kind of lottery winner. We want to take this money and very thoughtfully plan out exactly what we're going to do with it."

Newhouse says the group has already begun consulting with clients, volunteers and its 38 chapters across the country on how the money should be spent. She says the focus is on expanding the work they already do — funding scientific research, providing care and counseling for ALS patients and their families, and advocacy. Proposals will be discussed at a board of trustees meeting in October. And then, she says, decisions will be made — very carefully.

"It's not about spending money quickly. It's about spending money thoughtfully," she says.

Ken Berger agrees, with a caveat. He's president and CEO of Charity Navigator, which rates and analyzes U.S. charities. His group gives the ALS Association four stars, its highest rating. But Berger also says the ALS charity faces a tough balancing act — investing the money well, but not sitting on it for too long. He says most donors expect the money they give to be spent in a timely way.

"You'll see situations where charities have stockpiled money when they've gotten an influx like this, and donors have gotten very upset about it," Berger says. "Because their expectation is: The problem is now, the need is now, the organization needs to step up and dramatically increase its services."

He and others recall how outraged donors were when the American Red Cross received hundreds of millions of dollars after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and then diverted some of the funds to other needs.

Berger says, no matter what it decides, the ALS Association has to share its plans as soon as possible, so people know what to expect.

Patrick Rooney, associate dean at Indiana University's School of Philanthropy, says he thinks most donors understand that curing a neurodegenerative disease such as ALS is a long-term investment, but he warns, "Everybody will be watching. So a year from now, people will say, 'Where did that money go, and what's the social return on that investment?' "

Barbara Newhouse says she's well-aware of all this, and that she's already been inundated with advice.

"I'm getting e-mails, everything from, 'Spend the money this way,' to e-mails that say, 'Take your time, do it right,' to people who say, 'I've got the cure for ALS, so just pay me, and I'll give you the cure.' I'm getting it all," Newhouse says.

She admits, though, for someone running a charity, there are worse problems to have.

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Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, LeBron James, Lindsay Lohan, Kermit the Frog and Conan O'Brien all got icily drenched for charity. (via YouTube)

London 'Times' Goes Retro With Stereo Typing

Aug 27, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Robert Siegel speaks to Patrick Kidd, the editor of The Times Diary, about the sounds of mechanical typewriters piped into the newsroom of The Times in London. The idea is that the sounds will increase energy levels and help reporters hit deadlines.

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A construction excavator demolishes a so-called B-Hut at the huge Bagram Air Field norht of Kabul. The military used the structures as bunks and offices during the 13-year war but is tearing them down as most of the military prepares to leave by year's end. (NPR)

Before Leaving Afghanistan, U.S. Troops Must Declutter

Aug 27, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Barracks, or B-Huts, are torn down by soldiers from the 304th Engineers at Bagram Airfield. A shipping container is filled with excess equipment and supplies  in March as the U.S. military draws down in Afghanistan. Armored vehicles, known as M-ATVs, are lined up on the tarmac at Bagram Airfield. They will be flown out to the Persian Gulf on cargo planes and then shipped back to the US.

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Sgt. 1st Class Tom Albert is with the Army's 2nd Engineers at the massive Bagram Air Field north of Kabul and he's overseeing operation Clean Sweep here. It's a huge job, because American troops and equipment are scheduled to be out of Bagram and other bases by the end of the year.

The U.S. and Afghanistan are still trying to work out a deal that would allow nearly 10,000 military personnel to stay, but even that would be just a fraction of the force that's been here for the past 13 years.

Soldiers are in the process of tearing down small wooden barracks known in military speak as B-Huts. Some of these huts have been standing here at Bagram since the earliest days of the war.

"There's probably around 400 B-Huts left on (the Bagram Air Field) right now that need to be torn down," Albert says.

One is a B-Hut nestled against the concrete barriers that line the air field. Albert says it's too cramped here to fit an excavator, so this one is being taken apart by hand.

"We can tear down eight B-huts a day by excavator, and this right here is going to take about a week to tear down by hand," he says.

Even though these B-huts were originally built as short-term housing, they've weathered more than a decade of use as bunks and offices.

Staff Sgt. Dominic Koehl with the 304th Engineers out of Lima, Ohio, is leading the crew doing the deconstruction.

"A lot of this wood can easily be reused, it's practically brand new," Koehl says.

Tearing the hut down by hand means more of the wood can be recycled and given to Afghans.

Koehl's unit is actually deployed to Kuwait to build up U.S. facilities there, but two companies have been loaned out to Bagram for this tear down mission.

"We were more than willing to come up here and use our construction knowledge to put it to good use here," he says, adding that while it's fun to build, it's even more fun to tear down.

Across the base is a lot covered with 25 graying B-huts. Sgt. William Mesing in charge of knocking these down.

"When we first got this project, we started seeing some signatures on the walls, a lot of them were dated back to '04," he says.

And once they clear out the wiring and other reusable materials, they bring in the excavator. The raptor-like claw of the John Deere machine quickly chews up a B-hut and spits out the debris into a growing pile. Mesing says it's a lot of fun to spend his days knocking down B-Huts.

"You can definitely get some stress out of your system," he says. "But at the end of the day, then you look at the pile of mess you've got to pick up, then it's kind of like 'Oh, man.'"

And a few hundred yards away, another crew is carrying out the cleanup part of Operation Clean Sweep.

Sgt. Robert Duncan of the 876th Engineer Company says their job is to clean up debris and return the land on the base to its natural state. "We've found anything from commode seats to engine blocks out here," he says. "You name it, we found it."

Duncan says they've cleared about six football fields worth of trash and debris and have about four more to go for now.

And while crews are busy knocking things down and clearing away years of debris, there is still new construction going on here.

A few years ago, the military was anticipating a sizeable troop presence in the country for years to come. But, President Obama since declared most will be gone by the end of the year, and only 10,000 troops will stay for another two years. That has changed plans for Bagram.

"Some of those things are either built or we're finishing building them because it's too late to change that plan," says Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of NATO forces in Eastern Afghanistan. He acknowledges that some of the new structures are overbuilt for the future mission as planned now.

"We've actually canceled some projects, and we've scaled back," he says.

Like A NASCAR Pit Crew

But Bagram still can't shrink too much. Other smaller bases are collapsing and personnel and equipment are temporarily moving here as units sort out what will be scrapped, given to the Afghans or sent home.

Sending things home is the job of Air Force Maj. Chris Carmichael. He's commander of the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron. He's overseeing the air transport of personnel and cargo out of the country.

"We're the busiest aerial port in the Department of Defense," Carmichael says.

Here on the edge of Bagram's airfield are dozens of M-ATVs — giant armored tactical vehicles — waiting to be loaded onto C-17 cargo planes.

"All of it is pretty much going back to the U.S. It'll probably be stored for future wars," he says.

Many other armored vehicles still remaining in Afghanistan are not fit for future use and are being shredded. And some 200 will be handed over to Afghan forces.

Others will fly to U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf where they will be later loaded on ships heading to the U.S. This form of transport is more complicated and expensive than the mission to remove cargo and tactical vehicles like MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored personnel vehicle) out of Iraq.

"In Iraq you could easily just drive the MRAPs right into Kuwait," Carmichael says.

But driving vehicles and cargo out of Afghanistan requires traveling dangerous routes through Pakistan to the port of Karachi, or much longer routes to the north of Afghanistan. So flying everything out is the best option here.

One of Carmichael's crews is in the process of loading four of these M-ATVs onto a hulking C-17 cargo jet.

"It's a fast and furious process, because they only have two hours and 15 minutes to get this thing downloaded and uploaded and back in the air," he says. "It's just like a pit crew at a NASCAR event."

And, as busy as the crews are now, Carmichael says their capacity has hardly been tested.

"We have not seen the majority of the cargo we're going to see," he says. "Based on what I'm seeing on the projections, most of it is going to go in November and December."

And, he says, they can also fly out more than 1,000 troops a day.

And Carmichael says his port dogs will be some of the last ones to leave Afghanistan. "Somebody's got to load the plane," he says.

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