Monday, August 31, 2009

News Roundup

The Five Biggest Lies in the Health Care Debate |
Progressive Nation » Blog Archive » The Republican Party Is Turning Into A Cult
The Week Magazine - Brad Delong - Why health-care reform failed last time

The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan | The Evidence Mounts Still Further: One political party in this country is now explicitly pro-torture, and wants to restore a torture regime if it regains power (US more pro-torture than Iran)

Iranians Say Prison Rape Is Not New - The Lede Blog -
Beck: "There is a coup going on ... it has been done through the guise of an election" | Media Matters for America ("And God help us in an emergency.")

Making Home Affordable Program hasn't helped enough, some say - (6 months in, only 6% of 4 million eligible have gotten dollar one)
Commercial Real Estate Lurks as Next Potential Mortgage Crisis -
As a Foreclosure Judge, Arthur Schack Tosses Out Cases, Brooklyn Style -

Felix Salmon » Blog Archive » The systemic threat posed by megabanks | Blogs |
"Loss-Share": FDIC Offers Billions In Guarantees For Buyers Of Failed Banks (socialism for banksters!)
As Biggest Banks Repay Bailout Money, the U.S. Sees a Profit -

Cellphones Cause Brain Tumors, Says New Report By International EMF Collaborative
Depression's Evolutionary Roots: Scientific American Two scientists suggest that depression is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages
Asparagus May Ease Hangover - Health News -

The Medium - Facebook Exodus -
Wikipedia to Color Code Untrustworthy Text | Wired Science |
Gmail may hand over IP addresses of journalists - Wikileaks

U.S. Says Pakistan Made Changes to Missiles Sold for Defense -

Average Penis Size Worldwide, Research Conducted by Andromedical®
AdultSheepFinder - The Worlds #1 Sheep Sex and Dating Personals Site

Japan Election Results: Opposition Democrats Win Huge Victory (Republicans destroyed Japan economy)
Japan Vote Points to Political Upheaval -
Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert Indicted -

The Seminal » We Know Failure When We See It (Afganistan)
Taliban: How Crime Pays for the Growing Insurgency - TIME
George Will set to call for pull-out - Mike Allen -

Emptywheel » Finder Is CIA’s Keeper In Slanted NYT Op-Ed
The Washington Monthly: Hurting Dick Cheney's Feelings
Cheney Still Manipulating People -- Now In Public Dan Froomkin

Bill Moyers on the health care debate, Democrats, and Afghanistan
Byron Williams: Facts Left the Health Care Debate Long Ago, Emotion Is the Driver Now!
U.S. ranks 28th in Internet speed among industrialized nations, study finds -- (almost as bad as healthcare)

Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009

While on a largely internet-free vacation we got some weekend TV coverage of Senator Teddy Kennedy's passing. Much can be said in sport and criticism of the man, and was, but he had a huge heart that did much good. In the photo above he was 6 years old, in front of Buckingham Palace with his sister Jean as his father Joseph, America's new and rather unsympathetic ambassador to England, called on its King. While not tailored for the grandee, Edward would turn out to be exceedingly comfortable with back rooms and bars and also in the details where deals are made before they ever see the light of day or stage. He had the rare ability to be loved by friend and foe alike.

Another flawed character, the son-of-a-gun-can-write Joe Klein, crafts an appropriate eulogy to the Senator whom he knew professionally for almost 40 years, The Man Who Found Himself:
He seemed a ghost the day I met him. It was Memorial Day, 1970. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie. He was still wearing a back brace from the Chappaquiddick accident and he moved stiffly, like a robot cartoon of a politician. He didn't smile, seemed grim even when shaking hands with the civilians; his demeanor was all the more striking because we were at a classic grip-and-grin event, the annual Greek picnic in Lowell, Mass. All sorts of politicians were there, including two who would run for President themselves — Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. The pols gadded about with antic smiles and jackets hooked over their shoulders, ties loosened, sleeves rolled up, trying to look like Kennedys, trying to look ... like him. His family defined political style and vigor for a generation of politicians. But at that moment, and for years after, Ted Kennedy seem to writhe in the public eye.

He was scared catatonic, of course. Scared of death, obviously. There was no reason to believe, in a nation of nutballs, that he would be allowed to continue, unshot. But he was frightened of more profound things as well — overwhelmed by his own humanity in the face of his brothers' immortality, convinced that he'd never measure up, that Joe and Jack and Bobby had been the best of the Kennedys. He was the baby; his political career — the premature ascension to the Senate at the age of 30 — was a family conceit, the closest thing to a regency appointment the Senate had ever seen. He was not only the baby, but also the screwup — cheating on his Spanish test in college, boozing and womanizing well beyond the requisite Kennedy-legacy level, and then Chappaquiddick — and even after Chappaquiddick, after he had somehow allowed a young woman to die, they still wanted him to run for President. There was no way to convince them that he was a hollow shell of the dream.
The piece is worth reading in full, and there's a gorgeous archival collection of the lens-worthy Kennedy Family suitable for mulling a passed era at the Big Picture.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Insurance Industry Set To Reap Bonanza

Given the curious advantage, one rather akin to time travel, of writing the health care reform legislation before it even gets inspected by the elected Congressional representatives who vote on it, what's going to happen is hardly a surprise. But it is a disappointment, especially for people like me and my wife and at times like this we are quite capable of sounding like anti-government Republicans. Because we share their opinion of a process gone horribly, irrevocably wrong.

We're both self-employed, you see, and our combined insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health care costs total up to more than $20,000 per year. In fact we still owe nearly $4,000 for our second son's no-complication, no-epidural birth, which took only two hours of delivery room time.

Like Obama, we were naively hoping for a little competition to be injected somewhere into the insurance "industry" processes, so a claim can't be denied retroactively six months down the line with no explanation, so the yearly premiums don't go up by an arbitrary 8, 13, 11, or 15%. Couple that cost into our boxcar of $27,000 per year in child care expenses (note: we chose two of the better day care values available in our neck of Seattle) and an 8% higher tax straight off the top for the temerity of having a small business (known as the "self-employment tax"), and it adds up to one dream sail boat or Porsche worth of cash per year. Something has got to give, and it will almost certainly be us.

To the insurance companies, combine 40-some million uninsured folks with the right wording and it's Bring On the Dancing Nurses for a long, long time. There's an article in the LA Times detailing the mechanics of how a "strong public option" will fleece taxpayers and subscribers who don't meet at-need limits:
Lashed by liberals and threatened with more government regulation, the insurance industry nevertheless rallied its lobbying and grass-roots resources so successfully in the early stages of the healthcare overhaul deliberations that it is poised to reap a financial windfall.

The half-dozen leading overhaul proposals circulating in Congress would require all citizens to have health insurance, which would guarantee insurers tens of millions of new customers -- many of whom would get government subsidies to help pay the companies' premiums.

"It's a bonanza," said Robert Laszewski, a health insurance executive for 20 years who now tracks reform legislation as president of the consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates Inc.

Some insurance company leaders continue to profess concern about the unpredictable course of President Obama's massive healthcare initiative, and they vigorously oppose elements of his agenda. But Laszewski said the industry's reaction to early negotiations boiled down to a single word: "Hallelujah!"

The insurers' success so far can be explained in part by their lobbying efforts in the nation's capital and the districts of key lawmakers.

The bills vary in the degree to which they would empower government to be a competitor and a regulator of private insurance. But analysts said that based on the way things stand now, insurers would come out ahead.

"The insurers are going to do quite well," said Linda Blumberg, a health policy analyst at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. "They are going to have this very stable pool, they're going to have people getting subsidies to help them buy coverage and . . . they will be paid the full costs of the benefits that they provide -- plus their administrative costs."

One of the Democratic proposals that most concerns insurers is the creation of a "public option" insurance plan. The industry launched a campaign on Capitol Hill against it, grounded in a study published by the Lewin Group, a health policy consulting firm that is owned by UnitedHealth Group. The lobbyists contended that a government-run plan, which would have favorable tax and regulatory treatment, would undermine private insurers.

Opposition increased this month when boisterous critics mobilized at town hall meetings held by members of Congress home for the August recess.

The attacks, supplemented by conservative critics on talk radio and other forums, drew national attention.

Leading insurers, including UnitedHealth, urged their employees around the country to speak out. Company "advocacy hot line" operations and sample letters and statements were made available to an army of insurance industry employees in nearly every congressional district.

Some insurers supplemented the effort with local advertising, often designed to put pressure on specific members of Congress. Late in the spring, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina -- the home state of several conservative Blue Dog Democrats -- prepared ads attacking the public option.

Leading Democrats have fought back, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) last month calling the industry "immoral" for its past treatment of customers and suggesting insurers were "the villains" in the healthcare debate.

Still, recent support for the public option has declined, and the stock prices of health insurance firms have been rising.

Undermining support for the public option wasn't the only gain scored by insurance lobbyists.

In May, the Senate Finance Committee discussed requiring that insurers reimburse at least 76% of policyholders' medical costs under their most affordable plans. Now the committee is considering setting that rate as low as 65%, meaning insurers would be required to cover just about two-thirds of patients' healthcare bills. According to a committee aide, the change was being considered so that companies could hold down premiums for the policies.

Most group health plans cover 80% to 90% or more of a policyholder's medical bills, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Industry officials urged that the government set the floor lower so insurers could provide flexible, more affordable plans.

"It is vital that individuals, families and small-business owners have the flexibility to choose an affordable coverage option that best meets their needs," said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's Washington-based lobbying shop.

Consumer advocates argue that a lower government minimum might quickly become the industry standard, placing a greater financial burden on patients and their families.

"These are a bad deal for consumers," said J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner who works with the Consumer Federation of America.

Meanwhile, companies would probably see a benefit by providing less insurance "per premium dollar," Hunter said.

"It would be quite a windfall," said Wendell Potter, a former executive at Cigna insurance company who has become an industry whistle-blower.

Consumer and labor advocates acknowledged the industry's lobbying success.

In the first half of 2009, the health service and HMO sector spent nearly $35 million lobbying Congress, the White House and federal healthcare offices, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

With more than 900 lobbyists, that sector -- whose top spenders are insurance giants UnitedHealth, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Aetna -- was poised to spend more than in 2008, a record lobbying year.

UnitedHealth spent the most, $2.5 million in the first half of 2009, and hired some of Washington's most prominent political players, including Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader who served as an informal health policy advisor to Obama.

"They have beaten us six ways to Sunday," said Gerald Shea of the AFL-CIO. "Any time we want to make a small change to provide cost relief, they find a way to make it more profitable."
Iraq: Maliki Being Angled Out

Big news in Iraq, not unexpected.
Iraq's major Shiite parties announced a new coalition Monday that excludes Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a development that will likely force the prime minister to join forces with non-traditional allies if he seeks to keep his job after parliamentary elections in January.

If the new Shiite coalition remains intact and secures a majority of seats during the Jan. 16 vote, Iraq's next government likely would be run by leaders with deep ties to Iran, which would considerably curb American influence here as U.S. troops continue to withdraw.
Maliki has been quite the survivor, but this will be too much. The implication for him is that he'll be out very soon.

For Iraq, the tectonics are such that the Shia "rump" will start to behave more as a de facto region of Iran. If for some reason Iraq holds together after a further US military withdrawal, it will evolve into something like an Iranian satellite. This might not be an entirely bad thing, given the Sunni and Kurdish fractiousness and all the required balancing acts that situation would entail. An independent Iran/Iraq/Af-Pak could act as a greasy syncro-mesh between China, Russia, India, and the West. One might think of of this mythical, admittedly optimistic place as a sort of earth-bound Tattooine for oil deals.

No One Could Have Predicted The Pentagon Would Repeatedly Beg For More Troops in Afghanistan

The median age in the tribal region known as Afghanistan is 17.5 years old. Over 50% of its population is 15-64 and there are roughly 14 million Pashtunis in the provinces where NATO has something less than 80,000 combat troops. It can be deduced that 3-4 million armed, hostile and clanned-up males are living large in those parts, not to mention getting visits and aid from 28 million sympathetic Pashtuni cousins over the porous Pakistan border. Nation-building with 100,000 troops there simply doesn't cut it, a fool's errand in a half-assed war.

A NYT article on the nature of things to come, the first official announcement of Serious Deterioration issues from the Pentagon, a mere four months after the start of the Af-Pak Surge, in 'US Military Says Its Forces Insufficient:'

The commanders emphasized problems in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents continue to bombard towns and villages with rockets despite a new influx of American troops, and in eastern Afghanistan, where the father-and-son-led Haqqani network of militants has become the main source of attacks against American troops and their Afghan allies.

The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.

The assessments come as the top American commander in the country, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has been working to complete a major war strategy review, and as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, described a worsening situation in Afghanistan despite the recent addition of 17,000 American troops ordered by the Obama administration and the extra security efforts surrounding the presidential election.

“I think it is serious and it is deteriorating,” Admiral Mullen said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics.” He added that General McChrystal was still completing his review and had not yet requested additional troops on top of those added by Mr. Obama.

Clearly, then, we must give McChrystal more money to throw onto Fortuna's roulette wheel. He aggressively campaigned in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks back ("Taliban Now Winning") to go whole hog, more or less saying the Taliban were about to overrun a Wal-mart near you.

The odds against him are even more steeply fun now after last week's election wreck. In short, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (nice media ring to that name!) will dispute the election, cite widespread reports of fraud, and probably force a run-off with Hamid Karzai, who was already known as "The Mayor of Kabul." Now he will be known as "Ridiculous Shithead Who Can't Even Rig An Election In The Most Corrupt Country on Earth."

To quote a general now lost to history in the Google Age, meaning I once read something attributed to him, probably in David Halberstam's 'A Bright Shining Lie,' and then googled for it and couldn't find his reference or his name, but anyway here goes: "It'd take 500,000 troops 8 years, and even then you couldn't do it." At the time, the general was estimating the number of troops it would take to stabilize Vietnam and turn it into a democracy. For Afghanistan, start with a million troops, think 20 years and then hope you get lucky. Quick, somebody pass Obama another bong hit.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Stack Market

The long-term rule of thumb for fair valuation of the Standard & Poor's 500 price to earnings (P/E) ratio used to be 14. Generally speaking, when the PE ratio was above 14, stocks were considered to be expensive, when it was below they were cheap. When the market's collective PE climbed to 20, you started looking for vacant lots, and when it fell to 7, you started to look for publicly traded mattress stores. That's what the game was like from about 1936 into the late 1980s from the sell crest (red line) to the buy trough (green line). Twenty years on the late 80s, the definition of value investing in equities has changed by almost an order of magnitude.

The price investors were willing to pay for a dollar of earnings greatly increased during the late-90s dot-com boom and continued through the early-ought dot-com bust. Recently, as a result of the plunge in earnings and stock market rally following the 2008 Wall Street bailout, fiscal stimulus, and job-less recovery, the ratio spiked again and peaked at a PE of 144. With 97% of US corporations having reported for Q2-09, the S&P 500 PE ratio currently stands at a vertiginous 129. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Like Hamlet, Horatio was a student at the University of Wittenberg. He was a model of rationality, was probably an economist, deeply uncomfortable with the notion that Hamlet was talking with his father's ghost. But it is precisely from the lips of our father's ghosts that we hear condemnations of the ugly suppurating brutes that stand before us wrapped in silk and garlands, announced by jesters waving sparklers to the pensions of Elsinore.
The PE ratios have gone vertical, Ophelia has climbed out onto a fallen branch over the river, and it might mean something.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Barack Hoover Obama

Kevin Baker has an exceptional article in the July issue of Harpers about some peccant similarities between our current president and the vilified-by-sands-of-time Herbert Hoover. One finds quickly, dirty, and disquietingly in the history that Hoover was also once considered the most Complete Man of his generation:

The comparison is not meant to be flippant. It has nothing to do with the received image of Hoover, the dour, round-collared, gerbil-cheeked technocrat who looked on with indifference while the country went to pieces. To understand how dire our situation is now it is necessary to remember that when he was elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover was widely considered the most capable public figure in the country. Hoover—like Obama—was almost certainly someone gifted with more intelligence, a better education, and a greater range of life experience than FDR. And Hoover, through the first three years of the Depression, was also the man who comprehended better than anyone else what was happening and what needed to be done. And yet he failed.

Scarier still, Baker isn't a GOP drobot but a deeply competent free-thinker who bemoans his own comparison, which is why I withheld posting his article for some time. Yet as of three months ago, I also knew health care reform would grind down into a Children of a Lesser Group Health Co-op Initiative. I watched as the Federal Reserve bought increasing amounts of each succeeding auction of treasury debt--until last week, when it bought an astounding 47% of the total amount of Treasury Bonds offered at auction. They have been weighed, and found wanting:

It is impossible not to wish desperately for his success as he tries to grapple with all that confronts him: a worldwide depression, catastrophic climate change, an unjust and inadequate health-care system, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ongoing disgrace of Guant·namo, a floundering education system. Obama’s failure would be unthinkable. And yet the best indications now are that he will fail, because he will be unable—indeed he will refuse—to seize the radical moment at hand.

Every instinct the president has honed, every voice he hears in Washington, every inclination of our political culture urges incrementalism, urges deliberation, if any significant change is to be brought about. The trouble is that we are at one of those rare moments in history when the radical becomes pragmatic, when deliberation and compromise foster disaster. The question is not what can be done but what must be done.

A moment was proffered, a boldness was required and abstained. Now bookend Baker's backdrop with a hard-hitting current New York Times piece by Joe Nocera about Obama’s status-quo financial plan:

Three quarters of a century ago, President Franklin Roosevelt earned the undying enmity of Wall Street when he used his enormous popularity to push through a series of radical regulatory reforms that completely changed the norms of the financial industry. Wall Street hated the reforms, of course, but Roosevelt didn’t care. Wall Street and the financial industry had engaged in practices they shouldn’t have, and had helped lead the country into the Great Depression. Those practices had to be stopped. To the president, that’s all that mattered.

On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled what he described as “a sweeping overhaul of the financial regulatory system, a transformation on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.” In terms of the sheer number of proposals, outlined in an 88-page document the administration released on Tuesday, that is undoubtedly true. But in terms of the scope and breadth of the Obama plan — and more important, in terms of its overall effect on Wall Street’s modus operandi — it’s not even close to what Roosevelt accomplished during the Great Depression.

Rather, the Obama plan is little more than an attempt to stick some new regulatory fingers into a very leaky financial dike, and not rebuild the entire system. Without question, the latter would be more difficult, more contentious and probably more expensive. But it would also have more lasting value.

Obama, like Hoover, has punted at best. What will be called recovery will probably be treading water, and the time for that may be short. Ours is a case of devaluing milk, true, and of casting about for towels, new bottles and next solutions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Schoolyard Of Forever

I'm not sure exactly when it dawned on me in conscious words, when its virtual 12-point type scrolled across the frontal marquis, but it did so. Most people never mature emotionally beyond who they were at 17 or so (I haven't) and many freeze earlier. If you find yourself talking to a roomful of executives, for example, assuming they're rational adults is a huge mistake. We may be experts at hiding it, but in the electric assemblages which our neurons fire, including the envelope which stretches from back to front and in which we perform name-calling, we're still children.

In that roomful of professionals there is a boy like the one you slammed your head into on the playground your first day of kindergarten; there is the poor speller who still feels dumb about it; there's the girl whose primary objective is to maintain a clique; and sooner or later, there'll be the guy who's been held back a couple times, the pissed-off terror who is going to rough you up and try to establish a protection racket. Boardrooms are classrooms, politics are schoolyards. Dick Cheney and Rummy are still out there, holding people up against the anchor fence, we're still beating up the maladapted kids from the bad homes.

The title above is a poem by Charles Bukowski. In it, he picks up the regimented brutality of a Prussian-designed compulsory school system, turns and examines it, telescopes it up then declaims it down into what's lacking in a country's soul. An awareness of it. A resistance to it. Apparently his grade-school nemesis was named Herbie Ashcroft; one of mine was named Alan Pabis, who has a facebook page. No hard feelings, Alan, hope you're well. Can't think of you without feeling that spot on my right hand, the 4th metacarpal. Where the bone thickened after the teachers privately came up and thanked me for hitting you. Here is the beginning to The Schoolyard of Forever:

the schoolyard was a horror show: the bullies, the dragons, the

the beatings against the wire fence
the eyes of our mates watching
glad that they were not the victims
we were beaten well and good
and afterwards
taunted all the way home to our homes of hell
full of more beatings

in the schoolyard the bullies ruled well, and in the restrooms
at the water fountains they owned us and disowned us
but in our way we held
never begged for mercy
we took it straight on
we were trained within that horror
a horror that would later hold us in good stead
and that came around
as we grew in several ways with time
the bullies gradually began to deflate, lose power

grammar school
Jr. high
high school
we grew like odd plants
gathering nourishment
then the bullies tried to befriend us
and we turned them away

(for those who would go on, here's the rest from

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Chuck Grassley's Debt and Deficit Dragon
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

The Grassley Knoll

For a man who sweetens his corn flakes with lead shavings, Iowa's Senator Chuck Grassley has sure overachieved.

Long serving as a general benchmark for lowered public discourse, a recent Senate presentation outlining his position against health care reform is a modern classic, and a strong hint at his Party's future messaging style. There's no describing it, really, but the clip above is narrated by The Most Trusted Man in America (an incredulous Jon Stewart) and must be seen to be believed. You are going to laugh...and then you'll wonder, "Couldn't they at least have spelled 'Sur Taxalot' correctly?" I mean, Grassley's top donors are all health care companies, so you'd think they'd demand better.

(h/t to Lord Wife and Daunting Ideas)