Sunday, November 22, 2009

Second sight, two

Another quick visit of an old item with relevant recent news.

Last summer, I commented on the protests following what appeared to be a rigged election in Iran. Now, the UN has chimed in.
The U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee condemned Iran on Friday for a violent crackdown on protesters after presidential elections this year that the Iranian opposition says were rigged. ...

The 192-nation assembly's Third Committee, which focuses on human rights, approved the nonbinding resolution 74-48, with 59 abstentions.
The resolution focused
"particular concern at the response of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the Presidential election of 12 June 2009 and the concurrent rise in human rights violations."

Among those violations were "harassment, intimidation and persecution, including by arbitrary arrest, detention or disappearance, of opposition members, journalists and other media representatives, bloggers, lawyers, clerics, human rights defenders, academics, (and) students."

The result, it said, has been "numerous deaths and injuries." It also condemned reports of "forced confessions and abuse of prisoners including ... rape and torture."
No real consequences are expected to arise from the report, which the Reuters article says has become "an annual ritual in recent years" (along with similar condemnations of North Korea and Myanmar - or, if you're an opponent of the military regime, Burma), because among the "no" votes were Iran defenders Russia and China, both of which have veto power in the Security Council. Still, for the little it's worth, the moral force of such a condemnation, even as it's unlikely to move the reactionary mullahs who retain the real political power in Iran, might bring some encouragement to those Iranians who still hope for cultural freedom and a real, honest, vote.

Footnote: The Iranian delegate condemned resolution co-sponsors Canada and Israel, accusing the former of "systematic violations of human rights including discriminatory policies ... against Aborigines, migrants and minorities" and the latter of "the worst forms of human rights violations, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, crimes against humanity and terrorism."

Which just goes to show yet again that even if it is the pot that is calling the kettle black, that doesn't mean the kettle isn't black.

Second sight, one

Quickly revisiting an old item that has relevant recent news.

In October 2004 and June 2005 I commented on the case before the Supreme Court regarding a move by the city of New London, Connecticut to seize private homes under the rubric of eminent domain, not for some public purpose but to turn the property over to a developer. The city claimed that the "public benefit" of the supposedly greater property taxes the new upscale development would bring in justified the forcible sale.

At the time, I described such a claim as
a perversion of the Constitution. The "takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment, as it is known, was designed to protect people from arbitrary government authority, not to enable that government to take land away from one private party only to give it to another.
It was, I said, part of a disturbing pattern of
cities ripping up established, stable neighborhoods in order to mortgage their economic futures to greed-driven corporations, selling their birthright, as it were, for a mess of pottage ... in pursuit of what too often turns out to be a mirage rather than a miracle.
Unhappily, the Court ruled 5-4 in support of the city, meaning that in essence there was no constitutional limit on the power of cities to impose eminent domain so long as they could claim some "benefit," however indirect.

The development in question in the case was supposed to involve hotels, condos, and a Pfizer research center and after the ruling the city spent $80 million preparing the land - but the project never got off the ground. And earlier this month,
Pfizer dealt a final blow to the project and the struggling seaport city by announcing that 1,400 jobs would leave the area as the pharmaceutical giant scales back amid tepid sales and a lack of new drugs in its pipeline. The move will vacate a 750,000 square foot complex built in 2001 and nothing is planned in its place.
The jobs will be gone in two years as Pfizer leaves behind
the city’s biggest office complex and an adjacent swath of barren land that was cleared of dozens of homes to make room for a hotel, stores and condominiums that were never built.
The project proved to be, that is, "a mirage rather than a miracle."

The upside of the story is that as a result of the outcry over the Supreme Court decision, 43 states have adopted laws putting some restraints on this sort of overbroad use of eminent domain.

But Robert M. Pero, a New London city councilman who is about to become mayor, still defends the original city action.
“I’m sure that there are people that are waiting out there to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” Mr. Pero said. “I don’t know that even today you can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Actually, the homeowners whose property was, in the words of one, "stolen" for economic development can say that. And they do.

So, for that matter, can I. And so do I.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Health care deform

Another reason, in case you needed one, to think that the health care bills in Congress may very well not be worth passing. The article is from the Washington Independent a week ago, I but didn't see it until now and didn't know this about the legislation.
The Democrats’ proposal to terminate the Children’s Health Insurance Program would hike health care costs for some of the country’s low-income families, likely increasing the number of uninsured kids in the name of expanding coverage, several health policy experts and state health officials warned Friday.
That's right: The health "reform" bill passed by the House would put an end to CHIP, (formerly S-CHIP). The program that was designed to provide health care to children whose parents couldn't afford it, the program first proposed by Bill Clinton in January 1997 but which for years suffered from inadequate funding, the one we worked so hard to expand in the face of reactionary obstructionism and Shrub vetos, the one we celebrated when that expansion was signed into law just last February after years of effort - that program
would cease to exist at the end of 2013, instead shuffling those kids into Medicaid or private insurance plans on a proposed insurance marketplace, called the exchange.
Now, in fairness, the idea is that the changes will enable entire families to join the same insurance plan, thus expanding coverage from the children to the whole family. And, some note, there are some advantages, such as that neither Medicaid nor the exchanges would require Congressional reauthorization, as CHIP does. Still, the fact is that
critics, including some children’s welfare advocates and policy experts, maintain that the proposal would shift an additional cost burden on millions of low-income families, thereby discouraging them from buying coverage at all.
Stan Dorn, senior health policy researcher at the Urban Institute, told a children’s health care forum on Capitol Hill a week ago Friday that due to CHIP's affordability,
“it’s clear” that kids “are much better off” under CHIP than they would be under private exchange plans.

“It’s not even a close question,” Dorn said....
Indeed. According to a study mentioned in the article, parents who now pay no more than 2% of their children's health care costs under CHIP could see that soar to as much as 35% under the House plan.

The Senate version of the bill originally called for CHIP to be eliminated but now reauthorizes it through 2019.

Turning up the heat

Updated Updated again Update #3 In this case, it's the nanny-nanny naysayers on climate change looking to turn up the heat on climate scientists, continuing the campaign of innuendo-fed paranoia they've intensified as their arguments against the science become desperate and feeble.

The Guardian (UK) reports that someone apparently hacked into computer files at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK and sucked up hundreds of private emails and documents exchanged by climate scientists over the past 13 years. The files were uploaded to a server in Russia, then mirrored across the internet.

According to Raw Story,
only a few diehard skeptics doubt that the warming of the last few decades is real. Now, however, those skeptics can barely contain their glee at the release of a cache of stolen emails that they believe prove global warming is nothing but a colossal hoax.

"If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW," one of these skeptics blogged on Friday. "The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth (aka AGW; aka ManBearPig) has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed...."

Those gloating over the emails have seized in particular on expressions of hostility towards climate change skeptics and dismissals of their papers as not representing legitimate science to elaborate theories of a conspiracy to suppress debate. They are also pointing to certain brief quotations that might be taken as boasts of manipulating data or as private acknowledgments of a lack of data to support the conclusion of global warming.
In short, they are combining cherry-picked quotes with expressions of the completely accurate sentiment that the work of the nanny-nanny naysayers is not legitimate science to claim "smoking gun" evidence of "the greatest scandal in modern science," one marked by deliberate falsification of data and cabal-like collusion among a large number of climatologists.
In one email, dated November 1999, one scientist wrote: "I've just completed Mike's Nature [the science journal] trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

This sentence, in particular, has been leapt upon by sceptics as evidence of manipulating data, but the credibility of the email has not been verified.
More to the point, as Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, pointed out, even if accurate it tells you nothing.
"You can't tell what they are talking about[," he said]. Scientists say 'trick' not just to mean deception. They mean it as a clever way of doing something - a short cut can be a trick."
But of course that won't move the nanny-nanny naysayers any more than the lack of context will. For them, like the Holocaust deniers they increasingly resemble, no proof of global warming will ever be strong enough to be accepted and no counter-"proof" will ever be weak enough to be dismissed - and they positively revel in lurid tales of massive conspiracies, one that in this case would have to include at least, as Greenpeace pointed out, "the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, NASA, and the world's leading atmospheric scientists."

I mean, just think about it: The wackos stole and have published 1,079 emails and 72 documents - and it appears that all they have to show for it, so far anyway, is one sentence in one email which can only be construed as proof of some conspiracy by assuming it is proof of some conspiracy. That's pathetic.

What a sad crew. And how sad for the rest of us that their voices are amplified first by right-wing media well-versed in conspira-philia and then by corporate media who find conflict more profitable than consensus.

The nanny-nanny naysayers insist "the truth is out there." Which it is - right out there in the open. The problem is, when you show them the truth, they refuse to believe it.

Updated with some later news: The email with the line about the "trick" to "hide the decline" was verified; it was written by Phil Jones, head of the Climate Research Unit.

On reading the whole email (available in this post at Media Matters for America), it appears that what he's talking about is the so-called "divergence problem," something of which climatologists are well aware. Since shortly after temperature records begin in 1852 until about 1960, the records and temperatures derived from examination of tree ring data tracked pretty closely. But after 1960, they began to diverge, with recorded temperatures showing increasing warmth while the tree rings showed some cooling. No one knows why.

Given the choice between indirectly derived figures and actual observed data, scientists will of course go for the latter. The big issue with the divergence problem is how it affects the reliability of tree ring data for the years prior to when records begin.

So it appears that Jones used a short cut - a "trick" - of taking actual observed data and appending it to, or overlaying it on, tree ring data after 1960 in order to illustrate long-term temperature change since the observed data was, obviously, more reliable.

Unless he claimed that the recorded data was tree ring data (or that the tree ring data was recorded data), he clearly did nothing wrong. (Note, for example, that in the "Reconstructed Temperature" graph in this post that recorded temperatures, marked by the black line, are clearly differentiated from the results of various proxy studies.) No conspiracy to "hide" anything.

Updated again with a correction: The original version of the post, in line with early reporting, said the files hacked were from the Hadley Centre, the UK's foremost climate change research center. The hack, as the text now indicates, was actually of computers at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia; the Hadley Centre and the CRU are separate organizations.

Update #3 is another correction: The original post said "From the time temperature records begin in 1856 until about 1960, the records and temperatures derived from examination of tree ring data tracked pretty closely." Records begin in 1852 and the close tracking started not long after that, not immediately. The text has been corrected.

Footnote to the preceding

I've been a bit surprised that in the coverage of the protests at University of California campuses over the 32% increase in student fees I haven't seen any condescending tongue-clucking about it being, in Tom Paxton's line, "vaguely reminiscent of the '60s." Which is, I rush to add, a good thing.

But damn, in some ways it does remind me of the '60s:
Police arrested 52 students protesting a tuition hike Thursday at the University of California-Davis and held them in jail overnight without food. One was reportedly beaten by police, a source close to the incident tells Raw Story. ...

The protesters held a sit-in in Mrak Hall, an administration building on the UC-Davis campus near Sacramento that the authorities told protesters to vacate by 5 p.m. Thursday evening. Officers from the Yolo County sheriff's office moved in and arrested those who didn't comply with the order.

“They were put in the paddy-wagon between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. last night, and they were taken to jail and held all night long without food,” Kristin Koster, who participated in the protests, told Raw Story. ... The students were reportedly only given food at 6 a.m. Friday. ...

Koster tried calling the administrators at UC-Davis Friday morning and said “they had no idea where the students were and took no action to find them."

“If anything, UC-Davis called the cops on their students, and then sent them off to jail in Woodland – in another town – without any legal observers, without any legal help, without notifying parents,” she said.
Ah, memories! Meanwhile, to the west, students occupying a classroom building at UC-Berkeley also got a dose of déjà vu:
Reports from the Berkeley campus describe students trying to arrange negotiations, and police moving in to break down barricades and make arrests. ...

Rachel Brahinsky, a former Guardian reporter who is now a Berkeley grad student, called in with this report:

    Tensions are escalating. Rows of riot cops are marching toward lines of students at the barricades. They come up to the students and barrel through. A student has been injured with either a rubber bullet or a taser, we’re not sure which.

    I have personally witnessed two incidents of students getting beaten badly.

    None of this is provoked. The students have linked arms, but nobody has taken any hostile action toward the cops.

According to a spokesperson for the students, Callie Maidhof, the action started early this morning. “Around 5 a.m. a group of students put barricades up and sometime before 6 a.m. police arrived and arrested three people who were unable to get up to the second floor.”

She added that bail was set at $10,000 for two of the students and $16,000 for the third (he refused to provide a DNA sample), who gave the statement “I think it’s ironic that we’ve been charged for burglary when it’s them that are stealing our futures.”

The two initial demands of the estimated sixty locked-in students were to rehire the 38 custodial workers that were recently laid off by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and to grant amnesty for all protesters involved in the events.
It's not certain but I suspect that last sentence is garbled and that the workers were not laid off by AFSCME but were members of AFSCME. In any event, two more demands, both related to student services, were added later.
There have been several incidents of recorded police violence, including at least two protesters with hands broken. Zhivka Valiavicharska, a graduate student in the department of rhetoric, had her hand resting on a barricade and was hit by a police baton. She was taken to a hospital and will need reconstructive surgery.

This was the second occupation of a building on campus this week. On Wednesday, students locked themselves in to the administration building where capital projects are based, but the confrontation was resolved in a few hours.
I want to emphasize that the previous post was not meant to denigrate student/youth activism. It was directed at that self-important subset of blogging budding politicians who think that activism consists of being a talking head and engaging in conference calls with White House officials and dismiss non-electoral forms of protest and action as anything from "self-indulgent" to "pointless" to "counter-productive."

It admittedly was a while ago but I specifically praised student activism and I was quite taken with the creativity of the "filibuster a building" protest that took place at Princeton a couple of years ago.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Point of personal privilege

Updated I just read one of those posts you see from time to time where some young activist and/or blogger bemoans the "attention" being given to '60s activists. (No, I won't tell you where because it's not important or even relevant.) Now, I have to say that I don't see all this supposed attention to the '60s, but eye of the beholder and all that.

Still, if younger activists are fed up with we old fogies sucking up all the air, there is one good way to shut us up: Outdo us! Put us to shame!

You could start by asking what I (as a self-described "child of the '60s") and my cohorts can say for ourselves. A start of an answer could be a short list I threw together a while back, a short list of things - attitudes, really - that I could identify with the '60s. None of them originated with the '60s and of course the movement of the '60s grew out of and was nourished by previous generations of dissidents. But it was the '60s generation that brought these notions to critical mass and thus moved them from fringe to mainstream. So, just as examples:

When you see people not blinking at an interracial couple - that was us.
When you see men wearing colors - that was us.
When you see women comfortably wearing jeans - that was us.
When you see two adults unselfconsciously holding hands in public - that was us.
When you see two men unselfconsciously holding hands in public - that was definitely us.
When you think about being environmentally-conscious - that was us.
When you see companies finding it necessary to try to convince everyone how environmentally-conscious they are - that was us.
When you see companies actually being environmentally-conscious - that was definitely us.
When you see people admitting that there is a glass ceiling - that was us.
When you see women challenging the glass ceiling - that was us.
When you see women actually breaking the glass ceiling - that was definitely us.
When you hear anyone defining patriotism in terms of willingness to challenge authority when it's wrong - yeah, that was us.

Another answer that might serve is something I wrote to a friend a number of years ago which I have quoted in this space before: The movement of the '60s was one that
over a several-year span was powerful enough to end the draft, limit and finally stop a war, force one (and maybe two) Presidents from office, shake the foundations of a society's judgments about half its population, force the nuclear power industry to a virtual halt, and change - perhaps not by much but quite possibly permanently - that society's sense of its relationship to the environment.
So take that as the place where the bar is set. You want to show us up? Top that! Do it! Turn it into "BFD" material!

Please! Really. I mean it. Do it. Nothing would make me happier.

But do take one bit of advice from the old guy: Please oh please stop imagining that your marginal access to the halls of power - access gained by that "old style" activism at which you now sneer - is the path to a better society. Let me amend that in an important way: Stop imagining it is the path, one that does and can stand alone. That is a fantasy that will leave you feeling - quite accurately - used and dismissed, as I know an increasing number of you are feeling now, almost a year into the "we are the change we've been waiting for" administration on which you staked your hopes.

"Inside the Beltway" thinking - and I note that is not a matter of geography but of a way of thinking, one that focuses on political campaigns, elections, and lobbying to the exclusion of other means - will fail you. Elections surely have their place, a necessary place, in the process of change. But not only are they not the only part, they're not even the first part of that process and they are far from the only means to press ideas. What's more and I would say particularly, your apparent distaste for street actions does genuine damage to your - our - cause.

One more very important piece of advice: Do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Slicing away your friends and supporters in a foolish attempt to avoid criticism or look "more mainstream" will not help you. It never has and it never will. It merely narrows the field of fire for the forces of reaction.

I say you should embrace all nonviolent means to change. You have the skills. You have the knowledge. You have valuable experience in organizing people. You have access to tools we never had. So get on with it! I promise you that you will find the old fogies right there with you.

Put us, put our record, to shame! Please!

Updated with a Footnote: Now you're getting the idea!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The waters of geek

So what's that a picture of, you say?

Well, the circled area in the enlarged area shows a plume of ejecta thrown up as the result of an impact. The picture was taken about 20 seconds after impact.

Why is it of any interest, you ask?

The plume has got water in it.

Yeah, and...?

It's on the Moon.

There is water on the moon. Quite possibly, a fair amount of it. Okay, water vapor and ice, but still water. H2O. The wet stuff. That had been suspected for a time, particularly in the cases of some craters with permanently shadowed areas, but now there is no room for reasonable doubt.

Last month, NASA sent a Centaur rocket stage weighing (on Earth) nearly 5,000 pounds (a mass of 2,200 kg) smashing into the Moon's Cabeus Crater. It threw up a cloud of debris about a mile (1.6 km) into the air - not as big as had been hoped, but more than big enough to do the job of enabling other instruments to analyze the cloud.

And what they found was
copious quantities of water-ice and water vapour.

One researcher described this as the equivalent of "a dozen two-gallon buckets" of water.

"We didn't just find a little bit; we found a significant amount," said Anthony Colaprete, chief scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission.
Two different instruments - a near-infrared spectrometer and an ultraviolet-visible spectrometer - analyzed the ejecta and both found clear evidence of water.

Colaprete, who described researchers as "ecstatic," said that the data gathered was so rich that it will be some time before the results are fully understood.
"Along with the water in Cabeus, there are hints of other intriguing substances[, he said]. The permanently shadowed regions of the Moon are truly cold traps, collecting and preserving material over billions of years."
And you know, that's the thing I like about science: There is always, always, something more to learn, something more to discover. It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day, 2009

This wasn't about Veterans Day originally, it was about Memorial Day, but I think it fits here equally well.

In May 2002, someone on a mailing list I was on posted a message asking people to take a moment of silence on Memorial Day, saying "Let us ensure that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom are not forgotten."

In response, I wrote:
And in that silent moment remember, too, the many nonviolent warriors who struggled, searched, sacrificed, for justice and freedom, who remain without songs or memorials to celebrate their lives or their passing, but who at some moment stood weaponless against the machinery of oppression and showed in their simple “No more” a force that can move history.
It is indicative of how we as a culture regard things that on the whole, we celebrate our soldiers while they are alive and our nonviolent warriors only when they are safely dead. Then again, I'm not so sure we're so different from others in that way.

Footnote: Then there is still my post "Heroics" from June 2008, reposted last Veterans Day with a little additional material, which has been my one big contribution to Web discussion.

Monday, November 09, 2009

So, are you satisfied now?

Updated Seriously. Are you? Are you satisfied with the health care bill that passed the House? After all the compromises, after all the "asses of Blue Dogs are to be kissed, those of progressives are to be stomped" concessions, after stripping out authorities for state-level single-payer plans and adding in abortion bans, after changing "Medicare plus 5%" to "negotiate one provider at a time," after creating a flimsy, weak, unattractive "public option" consciously designed to be no better than private insurance and which will cost more than private insurance, after creating an individual mandate but omitting any rate caps and removing the prospect of serious competition, after creating a system of what amounts to multibillion dollar taxpayer handouts to the insurance industry, after getting zero concessions from the right or the insurance companies that they weren't prepared to give even before the debate began, are you really satisfied?

Well, no, of course you're not "satisfied" and I know you're not. But here's what I was really asking: Do you think this bill was good enough to pass? Do you think the health care system it creates, the one of the actual facts on the ground, not the lofty rhetoric, is worthy of active support? Would you have voted for it?

I say it was not, it is not, and I would not have.

There was a period of time a few weeks ago when I could have been swayed by the "better than nothing" argument, not so much by the argument itself as by the political impact of a defeat and how it could (would) be spun as a declaration that "the people do not want reform" rather than as "this is not reform enough." That was before the House leadership caved and allowed a floor vote on Rep. Stupid's amendment knowing it would pass and before Tailgunner Joe Lyingman announced his intention to block the Senate version and got no reaction from the party leadership.

It became obvious beyond obviousness at that point that the concern was no longer, if it ever had been, enacting actual health care reform. It was passing a bill. Whatever concessions to politics and platitudes, to conservative endruns and Connecticut egomania, had to be made to get a bill passed were going to be made so long as at the end of the day the Democrats could say "we did health care reform" - even if they hadn't.

To those who say "It's a first step, one that can be built on," I say you can't build a solid house on a foundation of "stubble and straw." Medicare was supposed to be a first step. Medicaid was supposed to be a first step. Yet here we are, nearly 45 years later, still talking about "building" on "first steps." Why are we to imagine this time is different?

Have Medicare and Medicaid been improved over the years? Yes, they have - but the point is, they are still Medicare and Medicaid. They have not been built into anything more, anything different. And neither will this, no matter the final form upon passage. Oh, it will be tinkered with, adjusted, over time but it will never become something more if only because - again, just like Medicare and Medicaid - the energy will go to defending the system against being dismantled in the face of unending complaints about deficits and unremitting claims of impending bankruptcy.

At the end of the day, I can see only one progressive in the list of those who voted no, one name of someone who stuck to their guns and to the earlier pledge made by House progressives to reject the bill if it did not contain a strong public option. That one representative was Dennis Kucinich. I am not a constituent but I called his office anyway to say that there are those of us out here who understood why he did it, who recognized that the bill was just not good enough to deserve passage and that in the long run it may well do more to harm the hopes of real reform than to advance them.

We will never have universal health care. Damn it to hell, we are a disgrace before the world.

Footnote: The New York Times had an interesting chart about the 39 Democrats (including Kucinich) who voted "no." The accompanying text makes all the usual noises about how "vulnerable" many of them are, but the chart demonstrates that to be bullshit. For example, it mentions that
[a]n overwhelming majority of the Democratic lawmakers who opposed the bill — 31 of the 39 — represent districts that were won by Senator John McCain
in 2008. But of those 31, 23 won by double digits in 2008 and three more were unopposed - despite being in a district McCain carried. And they're supposed to be running scared in an off-year election? Of the 39 "nay"s, 30 won by double digits or were unopposed. They're supposed to be scared? For 17 of those who had an opponent, the margin was more than 20 points; for nine, the margin was over 30 points; for five of them it was over 40 points.

Of all 39, I could see only eight who could claim serious electoral concerns: They are first-termers, each of who won by no more than 5 points.

Other than that, I just don't buy the "running scared" or "vulnerable" crap. These people aren't "vulnerable." Other than Kucinich (If there's another name in there I should credit with similar gumption, let me know.), they are either prisoners of the insurance industry, reactionary jackasses, or both.

Footnote to the Footnote: The Times also had a good overview of the differences among the various bills; the link is right here.

Updated to note that among the vulnerable was Eric Massa, a single-payer supporter who voted against the bill, he said, because "at the highest level, this bill will enshrine in law the monopolistic powers of the private health insurance industry, period. ... I believe the private health insurance industry is part of the problem."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Passing thought

I was just reading Susie Madrak (of Suburban Guerrilla) on how the New York State Insurance Department is looking into charges that Cigna Corp. mislabeled $5 billion in health care premiums in reports to state regulators, thus making its "medical-loss ratio," the percentage of premiums actually paid out in claims, look bigger than it actually is.

And that phrase hit me for, I have to admit, the first time: "medical-loss ratio." Not "medical-expense ratio" or "medical-cost ratio" or "medical-claim ratio," but "medical-loss ratio." The insurance companies regard the money they pay out as a result of you giving them your hard-earned money in premiums as a "loss." Not a cost, a loss. By definition, every time they pay a claim, their attitude is "We're losing money on you!"

No wonder they try so hard to deny claims: They think that every premium dollar that comes in should be theirs to keep by right.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

I didn't know that!

Don Durito, my blogger colleague at Notes from Underground, informs one and all that November 5 is the anniversary of the birthday of Eugene V. Debs.

You can celebrate the occasion by checking out an archive of his works (thanks, DD) or the work of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, or maybe by just looking at some of his more memorable or significant quotes.

Or, just maybe, you'd want to take a gander at the website of the political party he helped found over 100 years ago.

Bigotry: theirs and not ours

You all know about the deeply upsetting loss on Maine's Question 1. It hurt and I mean that literally: I had had a knot in my stomach from early on and there was a genuine pain when I heard the final result. The pain has subsided by the upset remains and the same question keeps running through my head:

What is wrong with these people?

The ads run by the anti-justice people in Maine were the same, literally word-for-word the same, as the ads they ran in California on Question 8. How many times are people going to get fooled by the same fucking lies, the same fucking fear-mongering, the same fucking distortions, deceptions, deviousness, the same ... the same ... the same fucking lies before they realize they are being played for rubes by a bunch of crackpot reactionaries whose sanctimonious invocation of the "sanctity" of marriage is merely a smokescreen for their bigotry?

But, oh, didn't we hear that oil being poured on thick? "This isn't about hating anyone," they crooned, "it's about protecting our families!" Protecting them? From what? From the possibility that two men or two women could actually love each other and want to declare that bond in the way society has chosen to recognize it for others?

Protect them from what? From the knowledge that gays and lesbians are pretty much just like them, with the same sorts of hopes and fears and the same desire to have a stable household with someone they love, with the same desire to be treated with dignity and respect and not be singled out as somehow alien or "other?"

Protect them from what? From discovering by the experience of day-to-day observation that same-sex marriage does not damage, degrade, or devalue their own marriages?

I suppose you can call it progress that the bigots had to plaster smarmy smiles on their faces in order to hide their fangs, that they couldn't just come out and say "kill the queers," that, in fact, the fight against same-sex marriage is a rear-guard action by a retreating enemy, but it is bigotry nonetheless. Wrapping it up in the rubric of "protecting families" and hiding it behind phantasmagorical terrifying images of 3rd graders being forced to watch gay sex instruction videos does not reduce the bigotry, it amplifies it.

Oh, but wait! I can't say that! No, no, no! Because, according to some, saying things like that makes me a bigot! I am "intolerant of their views!" In the eyes of some, consisting mostly, I have found, of those particularly desperate to avoid facing their own biases, bigotry is not the only bigotry - objecting to bigotry is bigotry!

Well, I call bullshit. Compete and thorough bullshit. In fact, not even firm, formed, bullshit but floppy, wet, mucusy, particularly-stinky bullshit.

We are not the bigots. They are. Not just the open homophobes, not just the lunatic paranoids like Fred Phelps with his positively creepy obsession with the word "fag," but those who would deny their fellow citizens full equality under the law - and I mean full, not this "separate but equal" crap that not only ices same-sex couples out of the federal benefits of marriage but persists in labeling them as "other" - because they feel icky about how those fellow citizens like to have sex.

So no, don't bother trying to hand me any of that "You're the real bigot!" nonsense. Get this straight, you whiny-ass chowderheads:

Bigotry is bigotry. Objecting to it is not.

Intolerance is intolerance. Objecting to it is not.

Homophobia is bigotry and intolerance. Just as racism is bigotry and intolerance and sexism is bigotry and intolerance and anti-Semitism is bigotry and intolerance and the myriad other forms of religious, ethnic, and personal discrimination to which we are too often heir are bigotry and intolerance. Objecting to them is not.

Yes, I know you're scared. I know you're confused. I know it's disorienting to be told that things you were brought up to believe about "right" and "wrong," about "natural" and "unnatural," won't hold. I know it can be overwhelming to feel the world changing in ways you don't fully understand. But that doesn't alter the fact that denying your neighbors and fellow citizens equal rights because they are not like you, judging people on fears rather than facts, is bigotry.

So yes, if you oppose same-sex marriage, which now is the only way for same-sex couples to have equal rights, you are a bigot.

And those who call you on it - at least in this case - are not.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

In what a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor called "a stunning victory," just two days after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found that US courts can't challenge the White House on "security" matters, a court in Italy has convicted 23 American CIA agents of kidnapping in a case involving "extraordinary rendition." The BBC reports that two Italian secret agents were also found guilty as accomplices.

The Americans were convicted in abstentia because the US refused to extradite them.

The Center for Constitutional Rights noted rather bitterly that "Rendition victims can get justice in Italy and Canada but not in the US" and that "Our global reputation as a country of laws continues to suffer under the Obama administration" as Obama continues to endorse Bush administration stances.

The Italian case arises out of the seizure of Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar. Italian prosecutors
told the court he had been kidnapped in daylight on a Milan street in February 2003 and flown to Germany, and then Cairo, where he was held for years until being released without charge [in 2007].
Nasr told Human Rights Watch that while imprisoned in Egypt "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electric shocks" and prosecutors charged that he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings, rape threats and genital abuse.

Sentences in the case ranged from five to eight years plus requiring payment of 1.5 million Euros (about $2 million) to Nasr and his wife. Charges against three other Americans and five other Italians had been dropped on grounds of diplomatic immunity and - dammit, every victory is tarnished somehow - "state secrecy rules."

Oh yeah, right, it's all Obama's fault, Part Zwei

Okay. We've got a case here that Obama had nothing to do with, at least not in any direct way. Both the conduct and the legal briefs involved came before he was president. It involves Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was seized at JFK Airport in 2002 while waiting to change planes as he returned home to Canada after a vacation. As I wrote when I first mentioned the case in November 2003, he
was snatched by INS agents, questioned, held incommunicado for nearly two weeks, and then deported - to Syria. All based on "evidence" from what Tom Ridge called the "international intelligence community," evidence which of course neither Arar nor anyone else working on his behalf has ever been allowed to see.

After a year in captivity in Syria during which time he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for 10 months, on October 5 he was released to Canada. No charges are filed and the Canadian government says it has no information that would have justified his detention.
When Canada launched an investigation into the incident, both Syria and the US refused to cooperate. In fact, Scott Horton recently wrote in Harper's,
[t]he United States tenaciously refused to acknowledge ever having made any mistakes - even after its own sources did so. It stonewalled Congressional probes and issued a travel ban to stop Arar from testifying before Congress.
However, the Canadian government proceeded with the inquest, as a result of which, Glenn Greenwald noted on Tuesday,
[i]n January, 2007, the Canadian Prime Minister publicly apologized to Arar for the role Canada played in these events, and the Canadian government paid him $9 million [US, $11.5 million Canadian,] in compensation. That was preceded by a full investigation by Canadian authorities and the public disclosure of a detailed report which concluded "categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada."
Meanwhile, Arar, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, sued the US government over the policy of extraordinary rendition. That case, Arar v. Ashcroft, brings us to the point here. (The CCR's site about the case, including background, timeline, and links to filed briefs, is here.)

The government had - of course - insisted the case be dismissed on "national security" and "state secrets" grounds with which the courts had no business interfering. Government lawyers even insisted at one point that foreign citizens merely passing through American airports have almost no rights. That even if they never attempt or even intend to enter the US, they still have to show that they could do so if they desired. If they can't, they can be seized and have no constitutional or legal rights. They can be detained without charge, denied the right to consult a lawyer, and even refused necessities such as food and sleep. And that would remain true, the government insisted, even if they are imprisoned in the US - because, the government claimed, they still would not have "entered" the country.

On Monday, the full Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the government's "national security" claims.
Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing[, Greenwald wrote]. ...

[But y]esterday, the Second Circuit - by a vote of 7-4 - agreed with the government and dismissed Arar's case in its entirety. It held that even if the government violated Arar's Constitutional rights as well as statutes banning participation in torture, he still has no right to sue for what was done to him. Why? Because "providing a damages remedy against senior officials who implement an extraordinary rendition policy would enmesh the courts ineluctably in an assessment of the validity of the rationale of that policy and its implementation in this particular case, matters that directly affect significant diplomatic and national security concerns." In other words, government officials are free to do anything they want in the national security context - even violate the law and purposely cause someone to be tortured - and courts should honor and defer to their actions by refusing to scrutinize them.
In different other words, "Don't bother me," "It's not my job," and "I don't wanna get involved."
Reflecting the type of people who fill our judiciary[, Greenwald continues,] the judges in the majority also invented the most morally depraved bureaucratic requirements for Arar to proceed with his case and then claimed he had failed to meet them. Arar did not, for instance, have the names of the individuals who detained and abused him at JFK, which the majority said he must have.
Greenwald, who notes how the case reflects "how the character of a country becomes fundamentally degraded when it becomes a state in permanent war," refers to Horton's analysis of the case and its telling last line:
The Court that once affirmed that those who torture are the “enemies of all mankind” now tells us that U.S. government officials can torture without worry, because the security of our state might some day depend upon it.
Footnote: Greenwald appends a description of what was done to Arar in Syria, provided by one of the dissenting judges. Read it while imagining the majority of the Court washing their hands.

Oh yeah, right, it's all Obama's fault, Part Eins

No, it isn't. He certainly - to be more exact, his DOJ - does bear a significant portion of the blame, but not all of it. To illustrate once:

Back in May, the Obama administration did a good thing by deciding not to appeal a Second Circuit Appeals Court decision from 2008 that struck down part of the Traitor - excuse me, "Patriot" - Act as unconstitutional.

The case involved a suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of an ISP that had been served a so-called "national security letter," or NSL, demanding information and which contained a gag order requiring the ISP to keep the matter secret, including even saying it had received such a letter - which is why the suit, which challenges the gag order, was filed under seal and is known as Doe v. Holder.

The lack of an appeal meant the case went back to District Court, where the government had to justify the gag order. Which it did, in June - in a secret submission that even the ACLU lawyers in the case were not allowed to see. An unclassified "summary" was prepared, but most of the evidence used to justify the gag order remains secret.

So maybe it's no surprise that just over two weeks ago the District Court upheld the gag order, ruling that the DOJ can continue to order the ISP (and as its lawyers, the ACLU) to keep silent even about its identity.

What makes this even more bizarre, if there can be something more bizarre than NSLs themselves, which amount to secret, extra-judicial warrants issued without even a facade of court oversight, is that the original NSL in the case was issued longer than five years ago and the government gave up trying to get the information in question over two years ago.

So a dead case has a live gag order on a secret party based on a secret warrant justified by a secret filing. Land of the free.

Oh, wait! The District Court is who I was pissed at here, but let's not forget, the decision was based on a secret filing from the Obama DOJ in June. So yeah, to a significant degree, this one is Obama's fault.

Hang on, I can do better.

Quick sidebar

At some point along these past few posts, someone is going to say (or at least think), "Oh, so I suppose you would rather have John McCain as president, huh? Huh?"

To those people, I say: If he was, at least you would be complaining about crap like this!

(Along with Afghanistan, drone attacks in Pakistan, the Middle East, and some other matters I've neglected of late.)

On a related front

Oh, the bad old days when everyone was so upset with the ridiculous, error-riddled, intrusive, police-state-like "terrorst watch lists." But now that President Hopey-Changey is in office, that's all behind us, right?

Uh, not so much. From Sunday's Washington Post:
Newly released FBI data offer evidence of the broad scope and complexity of the nation's terrorist watch list, documenting a daily flood of names nominated for inclusion to the controversial list.
During the 12 months from April 2008 through March 2009, intelligence agencies proposed, on average, 1600 names a day be added to the list based on "reasonable suspicion." The FBI said that the additions may not be new people but "an alias or name variant for a previously watchlisted person." Even so, the ever-expanding list is said to contain more than 400,000 unique names and over 1 million total entries. That's something like six and a-half times the number on the list in June 2004.
Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI needed initial information that a person or group was engaged in wrongdoing before it could open a preliminary investigation.

Under current practice, no such information is needed. That led [Sen. Russ] Feingold to ask how many "assessments" had been initiated and how many had led to investigations since new guidelines were put into effect in December 2008. The FBI said the answer was "sensitive" and would be provided only in classified form.
In other words, none of the public's fucking business. However,
Feingold was given brief descriptions of the types of assessments that can be undertaken: The inquiries can be opened by individual agents "proactively," meaning on his or her own or in response to a lead about a threat. Other assessments are undertaken to identify or gather information about potential targets or terrorists, to gather information to aid intelligence gathering and related to matters of foreign intelligence interest.
So you can get on the list for pretty much any damn reason at all, including some individual FBI agent thinking you're "some kinda radical." I suppose it could be worse, though:
Feingold pointed to a November 2008 Justice Department inspector general audit showing that in 2006, approximately 219,000 tips from the public led to the FBI's determination that there were 2,800 counterterrorism threats and suspicious incidents that year.
That is, more than 98.7% of such tips involved - nothing. Not even up to the level of "suspicious." But we're not paranoid, we haven't been driven to suspect strangers who "look funny" or even neighbors or co-workers who say the wrong thing, oh, no. Not at all.

One other thing:
Nine percent of those on the terrorism list, the FBI said, are also on the government's "no fly" list.
Which means, unless that's a misprint or a misunderstanding (and as of Wednesday afternoon there is no correction to the online article), that 91% of those on the no-fly list are in addition to the "400,000 unique names" involved here.

Footnote, Actually It Could Be Worse Div.: The Daily Censored, a website of Project Censored, has a rundown of recent news chronicling the disturbing, even frightening, growth of the police state apparatus of the UK, including parents needing criminal background checks to supervise their own children in a public park; a nationwide tracking system of cars owned by people who have participated in demonstrations; allowing "town hall officials and civilian investigators" employed by government agencies the powers to "search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property" of minor offenders like fare dodgers; deliberately ignoring European court decisions against maintaining DNA databases of innocent people; a 1700% increase in spending on surveillance to include "giv[ing] officials access to details of every internet click made by every citizen" even though such information is inadmissible in court; and - and this is the one that got me - a new internet "game" with players "scouring thousands of CCTV cameras installed in shops, businesses and town centres across Britain looking for law-breakers," with monthly cash prizes for those who "catch the most criminals."

I used to really like traveling to the UK - I've been there seven or eight times - but now, even apart from the creepiness involved in flying anywhere and even though as a tourist who would only be there for a couple of weeks it would be extremely unlikely for any of this to affect me personally, the UK is increasingly becoming a place I just would not care to go.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Back to the real world, Part 5 (cont.)

Subtitled "There, I've Said It Again." In fact, I've said it, by actual count, in 15 different posts since March: In it's approach to presidential powers and secrecy in so-called "national security" (or anything that they can so label) matter, the Obama administration is all but indistinguishable from the Shrub gang.

In fact, the day after the election, I said that I suspected one reason for Obama's disgraceful flip-flop on FISA was that he began to contemplate having those same powers himself. In March, I wrote "Is it too soon [to say that Obama is embracing Bush policies]? Nah, it's not. No way." The months since have given me no reason to amend that judgment. Glenn Greenwald brings just the latest example.
The Obama administration has, yet again, asserted the broadest and most radical version of the "state secrets" privilege - which previously caused so much controversy and turmoil among loyal Democrats (when used by Bush/Cheney) - to attempt to block courts from ruling on the legality of the government's domestic surveillance activities. Obama did so again this past Friday - just six weeks after the DOJ announced voluntary new internal guidelines which, it insisted, would prevent abuses of the state secrets privilege. Instead - as predicted - the DOJ continues to embrace the very same "state secrets" theories of the Bush administration - which Democrats generally and Barack Obama specifically once vehemently condemned - and is doing so in order literally to shield the President from judicial review or accountability when he is accused of breaking the law.
The case is Shubert v. Obama, originally Shubert v. Bush, in which the plaintiffs charge that the Bush administration engaged in a massive and illegal "dragnet" surveillance of Americans, one that continues to this day. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is acting as lead counsel.
The lawsuit's central allegation is that the officials responsible for this program violated the Fourth Amendment and FISA and can be held accountable under the law for those illegal actions.
In response, the Obama crowd invoked the bogus "state secrets privilege," arguing that the case must be thrown out without a hearing because allowing it to proceed would "require" the government to reveal "highly classified NSA sources and methods." The word "must" - as opposed to "should" - was chosen deliberately to reflect to White House's position, because
[a]ccording to the Obama administration, what were once leading examples of Bush's lawlessness and contempt for the Constitution - namely, his illegal, warrantless domestic spying programs - are now vital "state secrets" in America's War on Terror, such that courts are prohibited even from considering whether the Government was engaging in crimes when spying on Americans.
The Obama administration is arguing, in essence, that on "national security," the president is above the law - just as the Shrub gang did. That the president can order any conduct, no matter how outrageously and blatantly illegal, and be able to avoid any possible consequences or even examination simply by waving the "secrecy" banner. That is what Obama is advocating. There is no way around this.

The EFF noted that in making the claim, the administration
demonstrated that it will not willingly set limits on its own power and reinforced the need for Congress to step in and reform the so-called 'state secrets' privilege. ...

EFF was skeptical when the Obama Administration announced in September its new policy on when the Executive Branch would assert the state secrets privilege in litigation. We argued that the Administration's promise of self-restraint was no replacement for Congressional reform of the oft-abused privilege, considering how the new administration had already embraced the Bush Administration's position on warrantless wiretapping and secrecy.... Based on that experience, we feared that the purported change in policy would result in no change at all when it came to lawsuits over the NSA spying program.

Our fears proved to be well-founded....
Greenwald pointed out how none of the excuses previously offered by the Obamabots can fly any longer. First, this was not something done by a Shrub holdover: AttGen Eric Holder said on Friday that he approved of the asserion of the privilege.
Alternatively, it was often claimed that Obama was only asserting these Bush-replicating theories because he secretly hoped to lose in court and thus magnanimously gift us with good precedent - but the Obama administration has repeatedly lost in court on these theories and then engaged in extraordinary efforts to destroy those good precedents, including by inducing the full appellate court to vacate the decisions or even threatening to defy the court orders compelling disclosure.
A president who is above the law when it comes to "national security." That is what Barack Obama is advocating.

Footnote: In case you're still wondering, two leftover items from September should help put those doubts to rest. The first from September 22:
"There is growing concern that [the] Bagram [detention center in Afghanistan] has become the new Guantánamo – except with hundreds more prisoners, held indefinitely in reportedly harsher conditions, with no access to lawyers or courts," said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a media advisory. "Yet the public is still in the dark when it comes to basic facts such as whom our military is holding there, for how long and on what grounds, and the rules that govern their detention, release and treatment. As long as the Bagram prison is shrouded in secrecy, there is no way to know the truth or begin to address the problems that may exist."
So after months of being denied the information, the ACLU has sued the DOD, the DOJ, the State Dept., and the CIA to obtain records on those prisoners.

As a sort of Footnote to the Footnote, back in April, US District Judge John Bates ruled that those prisoners should be provided habeas corpus rights, that is, the right to challenge their detention in a US court - rights which prisoners at Gitmo had obtained. The Obama crowd's answer came on September 15: It filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals in Washington, seeking to have the ruling overturned and claiming what applied to Guantánamo does not apply to Bagram.

The other item is from September 24, when the administration announced it would not seek new legislation authorizing the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects being held without charges at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba - because it decided it didn't need it. The post-9/11 resolution authorizing the use of force against "those nations, organizations, or persons" involved in 9/11 gave the administration all the authority it needs, the White House said.
In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.
This was despite Obama having said in May that he would not "decide alone" on the matter. Now it's that his pledge to "work with Congress" doesn't mean legislating, it means "consulting" - or, as it's better known, telling a handful of committee chairs "This is what we're going to do."

Monday, November 02, 2009

Now, back to the real world, Part 5

Last Wednesday, the same day that Barack "Some stuff I do is good and some stuff is really, really crap" Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, he also signed a "Homeland Security," i.e., Defense of the Fatherland, spending bill which effectively blocks the release of photos of the abuse of prisoners in US custody abroad.

The ACLU said in a statement that
[t]he amendment, which would allow the DOD to exempt photos from the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), is aimed at photos ordered released by a federal appeals court as part of an American Civil Liberties Union FOIA lawsuit for photos and other records related to detainee abuse in U.S. custody overseas....
Obama initially agreed to release the photos in response to the appeals court ruling. But the military high command and the right wing raised a ruckus, arguing that release of the photos would endanger US troops - apparently under the theory that it's that photographs rather than the actual torture which generates the anger.
At issue are 21 photos of detainees in US custody that the Department of Defense has been fighting tooth and nail from releasing. ...

Major General Antonio Taguba, the author of a report on allegations of detainee abuse in U.S. prisons in Iraq, said that photos exist depicting the following:

–An American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner.
–A male translator apparently raping a male detainee.
–A female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.

Other photographs depict sexual assaults on prisoners with a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube, according to Taguba.
The ACLU urged DOD Ubermeister Robert Gates to decline to use his new-found authority to conceal evidence of "misconduct" - that is, torture, rape, and other brutalities - but I suspect that is just a formality of argument as I don't believe for an instant that the ACLU thinks that the same administration which has fought it every step of the way will suddenly do the right thing.

One important sidebar is that the court ruling compelling release of the photos still stands, but enforcement was delayed to allow time for the adminsitration to appeal to the Supreme Court, an appeal which is now pending. If SCOTUS either declines to accept the appeal or hears it an upholds the appeals court, the photos could still come out, the new law notwithstanding.

Footnote, It Can't Be All Bad News Div.: The Defense of the Fatherland bill also allows Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be moved to the US for trial, bypassing the illegal and absurd military commissions. And in a related matter, on Monday the ACLU obtained additional documents on the Shrub gang's torture program. With the help of the courts, the group has over time pried hundreds of such documents out of the Executive Branch.

Taking a brief detour through Bizarro-land

According to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Huh?), the healthcare reform bills before Congress threaten the existence of the two-party system. In an interview with the reliably wacko, whose corporate slogan is "You think Fox News is nuts? Hah!" Hatch claimed that health reform is a "step-by-step approach to socialized medicine" that will lead to Americans being dependent on Democrats for their health and other issues.
"And if they get there, of course, you're going to have a very rough time having a two-party system in this country, because almost everybody's going to say, 'All we ever were, all we ever are, all we ever hope to be depends on the Democratic Party,'" Hatch said....
Which amounts to an admission that Americans cannot look to GOPpers to address critical needs but I doubt meeting needs is what Hatch is concerned with.

Meanwhile, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-Non Compos Mentis), claimed on the floor of the House that health care reform is a bigger threat than a terrorist attack, calling the bill the source of "the greatest fear that we all should have to our freedom."
"I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country," she added.
Just the idea, merely a nod in the direction, of providing access to health care to just some of those who lack it - which is all the bill would actually do - just the notion of saving the lives of some of the tens of thousands who die every year for lack of such access, is more than these people can handle; the passage of such a plan, they say, is worse than a terrorist attack and a threat to the political system. Which tells us a great deal about them and about the America in which they would wish to live.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Back to the real world, Part 4(a)

Sort of a Footnote to the preceding.

White House senior advisor David Axelrod, appearing on "Face the Nation" on Sunday, repeated the long-running White House gibberish on health care reform, telling Bob Schieffer that Obama believes a public option is "valuable," but said "I'm not going to deal with" the question of it he would sign a bill that lacked it.

It's one thing to be open to negotiation. It's quite another to be unable to stake out an actual position to negotiate from.

Meanwhile, another Obama surrogate was very clear on another point related to health care reform, how to pay for it.
"The president has been clear - he does not want to impose a tax on the middle class," senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett told ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
So the Obama crowd is capable of expressing clear desires on what should (or should not) be in a final bill. So long as it's a really, really, politically safe desire.

Just a couple of days ago, I sent this message to the White House:
Mr. President, it is time - indeed, it is well past time - for you to stop just referring to what you would "prefer" or "think is best" in a health care reform bill and step directly into the field of battle.

It is time - indeed, it is well past time - for you to lead instead of playing "duck and cover," more interested in not losing than in actual winning.

It is time - indeed, it is well past time - for you to expel the dybbuk of a dead bipartisanship.

It is time - indeed, it is well past time - for you to declare, firmly and clearly, that a strong public option must be part of a final bill and a bogus "trigger" must not be.

That is, it is time - indeed, it is well past time - for principle and for people, and for you to prove you are more president than politician.
Two months ago, I said that what health care reform needed from Barack Obama was "a little less Dalai Lama and a lot more LBJ." We haven't gotten it.

The hard fact is, we will get a health care bill - the absence of the word "reform" is deliberate - this session of Congress. It increasingly looks like it will be a bill that will require people to buy insurance, will put no restrictions on the insurance industry (which is more than happy to do away with pre-existing condition exclusions for the sake of getting tens of millions of new customers) but will instead provide the industry billions in indirect taxpayer subsidies through subsidized premiums, provide no meaningful competition, create a "public option" not worth having, undermine state-level drives for single-payer, set back real reform by at least a decade, and 10 years from now will still leave 18 million uninsured and an unknown additional number underinsured, all of them without access to adequate health care.

And to a significant extent, that will be Barack Obama's fault.

Footnote: Just a quick note to say this is worth a look - and, as usual, some of the comments are really just depressing.

Back to the real world, Part 4

Updated All the recent attention on health care issues has been given to the Senate, where the argument centered almost exclusively on whether or not a "public option" - some kind of public option, any kind of public option - would be part of the bill to be brought to the floor. The idea was, as I said myself just the other day, having the provision in there
sharply increases the chances of it being in what the Senate ultimately passes, which in turn clearly increases the chances of a decent public option being part of whatever final bill comes out of a Senate-House conference.
Underlying that idea was another one, that the House bill would be clearly better than the Senate bill.

Well, that last idea still holds true - but the gap is shrinking as the House bill worsens.

First, the House Democratic leadership stripped out of the bill a provision that said that rates for insurance obtained through the public option would be based on Medicare plus 5%, and replaced it with one where the government would negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals, as private companies do - thus guaranteeing that premiums will be higher than they otherwise would. That gives away one of the advantages for consumers in the whole plan while propping up the health care industry and particularly the insurance companies, who will not face any actual competition.

Even beyond that, it will likely make public option insurance more expensive than private insurance. As Miles Mogulescu, writing at Huffington Post, explains, big insurance companies can get volume discounts from providers because of the size of their subscriber base.
But without the ability to tie pricing to Medicare rates, the public option will have no ability to negotiate volume discounts. It will start out with no subscribers. ... [P]roviders will have no incentive to give volume discounts to the public option, which will end up paying more than large private insurers. This in turn will make the public option more expensive than private insurance. As a result, it will sign up few subscribers. With few subscribers, it will be continue to be unable to negotiate volume discounts.
And so on.
As a result, when the Congressional Budget Office first evaluated the Senate negotiated-rate public option plan, the CBO concluded that it would end up with no subscribers. ... [T]he CBO is now projecting that by 2019, approximately 6 million Americans would be enrolled in the negotiated-rate House public plan. The CBO also projects that "a public plan paying negotiated rates would ... typically have premiums that are somewhat higher than the average premiums for private plans."
Mogulescu describes it as being like "a brand new Mom and Pop store trying to compete with WalMart" and charges, as others have, that it is "a public option designed to fail." Considering that 10 years from now it would reach only a little over 10% of the currently uninsured and that it is intended to be unavailable to those who can get insurance through an employer (no matter how sucky that coverage is) and provide zilch in the way of competition, while still leaving, by CBO projections, 18 million uninsured (plus who knows how many underinsured), it's hard to argue with that conclusion.

And it seems to confirm what I said nearly five months ago, that the public option
increasingly looks like it will be consciously designed to be no better than existing private plans - in which case, exactly what is the point?
But remember, that was just the first. The second tells you just who is running things:
House Democratic leaders quietly stripped a single-payer provision from the House version of the healthcare overhaul Thursday. The measure would have allowed states to set up their own state-run healthcare systems, where local governments would have become de facto health insurers for residents.
That is, it specifically empowered states to set up their own single-payer plans. It was proposed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich and was added to the bill by a bipartisan 27-19 vote in the Education and Labor Committee. The majority was a combination of progressives who support single-payer and conservatives who support states' rights.

Significantly, according to Consortium News (via Corrente),
President Obama told the committee chairman, George Miller, to oppose Kucinich's amendment, and he did so, leading off the voting with a resounding "No." But the Democrats voted 14 to 14 with one member passing and two failing to vote. And the Republicans voted 13 to 5 with one member failing to vote.
And now it's gone. Because somebody - gee, I wonder who that could be - is so against single-payer that they want to, ahem, insure that it can't even be tried, even voluntarily, even by a single state.

According to News Junkie Post, as quoted by Raw Story, Kucinich was "livid" when he learned the amendment had been removed.
Kucinich’s amendment passed the House Labor and Education Committee in July. "No one gave me any rational reason," Kucinich said. "I can only assume the insurance company interests brought pressure to take it out. Otherwise I would have heard from someone."
Appearing on MSNBC's The Ed Show on Friday, Kucinich basically called the bill a sham and "a bailout for insurance companies." He pointed to section of the bill which says, quoting the bill as read on the show by Kucinich, "that rates shall be set at a level that does not exceed 125 percent of the prevailing standard rate for comparable coverage in the individual market." That is, it allows for an immediate 25% rate increase in premiums.

Referring to his amendment, Kucinich said in a statement:
If a state wants better health care than can be provided by the federal government in the health care bill we are seeing today, the federal government should not stand in their way. ... The removal of the Kucinich amendment constitutes yet another capitulation to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries who are already reaping billions of dollars from the bill.
Third and finally (for now), the Progressive Caucus, obviously unhappy with what's happening, is staking out some positions it wants adopted via Manager's Amendments. In what TPM called a "curt, terse letter," caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva laid them out:

- The public option must be available without triggers or opt-outs.
- If rates are to be negotiated, a ceiling will be set.
- The health and medical malpractice insurance industries must lose their antitrust exemption.

He also said he wanted an up-or-down vote on tying reimbursement rates to Medicare plus 5% - but Nancy "I gotta please the Blue Dogs but stomp on progressives" Pelosi has made it pretty clear she doesn't want that to come up. If she really doesn't have the votes for it, then I don't see what the problem with an up-or-down vote is - unless the brave, bold, Dimcrats are just afraid of being seen voting no. Or wait - maybe it's that some of them, enough of them, are afraid of being compelled by logic and back home support to vote yes even as their insurance industry overlords look on. Yes, that could be it.

Footnote: House GOPpers, at the last minute, say they intend to offer their own plan.
John Boehner, the House's top Republican, said his party hoped to introduce one single bill with a "step-by-step approach" that would include allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, letting people group together to buy it at lower prices and ending "junk lawsuits."

The bill will include eight or nine healthcare ideas that have already been introduced separately, he said on CNN's "State of the Nation."
So it's just an amalgamation of the same old crap of undermining the ability of states to require more than lowest-common denominator coverage, ineffectual co-ops, and "tort reform" to protect corporations and the powerful against responsibility for the damage they cause to individuals.

Boehner, whose name I still give the more fitting pronunciation, said the GOPper plan wouldn't try to cover all the uninsured but said "We will cover millions more" while refusing to give an exact number. Well, now, either they ran the numbers or they didn't. If they did, he should have been able to offer something better than the incredibly vague "millions." If they didn't, then he was just freaking making it up.

Updated to add my quote from five months ago.

Back to the real world, Part 3

Well, according to the money boys, the economists, the US economy is growing again.
The long-awaited ray of good news came from the Commerce Department, which announced Thursday that the U.S. economy grew a modest 3.5 percent in the third quarter of this year - the fastest pace in two years
and one above most projections.

Ain't that nice. Or it will be. Maybe. At some point in the future. Possibly.
"We're no longer simply on the roller coaster to hell," says Donald Luskin, the chief investment officer for Trend Macrolytics LLC, an economics consulting firm. "But the idea of returning back to normal growth levels? That will be well into next year."

Unemployment is expected to continue growing over the next several months, peaking at over 10 percent. Consumer confidence is still dropping, and new home sales fell unexpectedly last month.
Confidence is not the only thing of consumers that is dropping, spending is as well. According to the Commerce Department, it dropped 0.5% in September, the first drop in five months and the biggest decline in nine. In fact, these is real reason to believe that it was only the Cash for Clunkers program that had been propping up spending - and when it ended, so did a lot of the spending.

Meanwhile, incomes were flat, falling 0.2% in September after gaining 0.2% in August, with the weakness of the labor market giving companies a means to hold down or reject wage or benefit increases. As a direct result,
[t]he Labor Department said Friday that the cost of wages, health care and other benefits increased by 1.5 percent in the year ending in September, the smallest increase since such records began in June 1982.

That's down from a 2.9 percent rise in the 12 months ending in September 2008....
What's more, even the GDP increase may not be all it seems.
[Gus] Faucher[, the director of macroeconomics at Moody's] notes that much of the jump in gross domestic product last quarter can be traced to the Obama administration's stimulus spending. This suggests that the underlying economy might be bouncing back more slowly than the 3.5 percent growth figure might indicate.
And which also, let's be sure to note, demonstrates the value of government intervention in the economy. Still,
[e]conomists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions
and there are predictions
that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5 percent. Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.
And that may not even be the worst of it.
Job growth could be a bigger problem. Even in typical recessions, rebounds in employment lag behind GDP growth. But the gap could be even larger this time. ...

[B]eyond the 9.8 percent unemployment rate, there are also record numbers of underemployed Americans - those working part-time but seeking full-time work. When companies need to boost their output, they will likely boost the hours of those part-time workers before hiring new ones.

"We have more of these part-timers we have to burn through before we can start hiring than ever before in history," Luskin says. "The people who are really hurting - the ones who are working zero days a week - are actually last in line to get relief."
Just how bad is it?
[Ron] Blackwell[, the chief economist at the AFL-CIO,] said there is less risk of wage deflation than there had been six months ago because compensation appears to have stabilized at these low levels.

"The door to second Great Depression would [open] if we had falling incomes in real [adjusted for inflation] terms," Blackwell said. Consumers would be crushed by their high debt levels, he said.
So we're less likely to have a second Great Depression. That, friends, is the good news.
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