Friday, October 23, 2009

Jon Stewart Skewers CNN - Fact Checking? (Oct. 12, 2009)

Jon Stewart skewered CNN Oct. 12, 2009 (rebroadcast Oct. 22, 2009) although, to be fair, he could have done the same to MSNBC, FOX, or, quite frankly, every news organization on TV. Perhaps the best, and most illustrative, clip comes near the end (around the 8 min. mark), when a CNN anchor asks the reporter if there is any way to check the numbers. The reporter's obvious surprise at even being asked such a question tells it all. Reporting has sunk so low that, today, it doesn't even occur to anchors or reporters that when someone they are interviewing throws out a statistic or says "the American people know" that, just maybe, they should check the facts.

Stewart Skewers CNN

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Best and Worst Questioners in Congress

When one watches House and Senate hearings, one soon notices several different methods of questioning:
1. The question that is a statement worded so that the person being questioned will/can answer only one way. These are generally self-motivated statements that are either thinly disguised praise of the policy or issue in question or even less thinly disguised disgust with the witness.

2. Written
I think everyone I've watched has, at some time or another, read prepared questions. But even here, there are differences. In some cases, Jim Bunning and Richard Shelby come to mind, they seem not to have read the questions beforehand and more than occasionally, don't seem to understand what they are reading.

3. Extemporaneous
The most engaged and brightest people in Congress usually ask questions without notes that demonstrate both their understanding of the issue at hand and their attention to the matters under discussion... which is not to say that a lot of dumb questions don't also get asked.

Best questioner: Dingell in the House. Whether he reads prepared questions or asks them off the cuff, they are almost always short, direct, and to the point. Most hearings could be cut in half if other members followed his lead.

Worst questioner: Emmanuel Cleaver, without question. Mr. Cleaver is one of those who rarely reads prepared questions but ought to because he hems and haws and doesn't seem to know when he starts a question, even if he has been present through most of the hearing, where he wants to go with it. Watching and listening to him is painful. He actually makes George W. Bush look good.

Alan Grayson comes in a close second. On the House banking committee he routinely embarrasses himself. Grayson thinks he knows how to read income statements and balance sheets. He doesn't. And the poor witnesses, usually financial experts of one sort or another, are faced with the unenviable task of trying to answer a question so stupid it is meaningless without telling a member of Congress that he is a blithering idiot.

Best Chairman in Congress? Barney Frank

I've been watching House and Senate hearings on C-SPAN almost incessantly this past year and while I've probably not seen every hearing, I think I've seen enough to be confident that Barney Frank is, hands down, the best Chair in either House. He may also be the smartest (intellectually and politically) politician in Congress.

Although Frank can be darn difficult at times to understand, he knows his subject, he knows the parliamentary rules, he knows the people on his committee, both Republican and Democrat. There is a limit to his patience with Republican shenanigans, and he has both a sharp tongue and a sharp wit.

Although I don't always agree with him, it is clear to me that often, when he veers rightward, he does so because he knows just how far the Dems can go and still get something passed.

I'm also coming to appreciate Stupak, who chairs a sub-committee for both the way he manages the committee and for the clarity and relative succinctness both of his opening statements and questions.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Denmark - Not Socialism, Civilization

On Oprah's Oct. 21, 2009, she visits Denmark, Dubai, Rio, and Istanbul. In talking to two Danish women, Oprah commented that although Denmark is a democratic country, it is also socialized. The women responded that they didn't think of it as being socialism but civilization - that taking care of the old and the sick is what it means to be civilized. I like that.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sen. Jim Bunning (Ky.) - Most Sexist Senator

OK, it's obvious from discussions of various pieces of legislation that a lot of Senators are sexist, esp. the older male Senators.

But I've noticed something "special" about Bunning. When he questions women who appear before committees on which he is a member, he addresses them by their first names, although he uses titles or full names for the men who appear before him.

Sheila Bair (FDIC) is, thus, "Sheila" (accompanied by a paternal smile). And in an Oct. panel of experts on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the mortgage industry, Prof. Susan Wachter (Wharton) became "Dr. Susan".

I'm not sure which is worse: that he does it without knowing he does it or that he does it on purpose to indicate his lack of respect for female professionals.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Alan Grayson - Idiot Representative Gets Media

Please, before you crown Grayson as the newest Democratic light in the House, watch some of Barney Frank's hearings on the financial mess. Grayson makes a fool of himself time and time again, asking questions about financial reports that prove only how little he understands them. One can see the amazement/distress in the eyes of people like Geithner and Bernanke who, faced with one of Grayson's illogical, ignorant questions, tries to figure out how to answer him without telling him that he's a blithering idiot.

Yes, he does get points for taking down Olympia Snowe - I, too, am damn upset that the health care system for the next two decades may be decided by Senators from Maine, Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota - but he's a publicity hound who has discovered that politicians who make outrageous statements get air time while politicians who don't, don't.

Keith Olbermann - Hour Long, Self-Indulgent Rant on Health Care Reform

Wednesday night (Oct. 7, 2009), Olbermann outdid himself with an embarrassing, self-indulgent, hour-long rant supposedly in support of health care reform - brought about by his experience with his father's serious illness.

First off, he surely embarrassed his father with details of how the problem began - just a day or two after a comment that he had missed a number of shows because of his father's illness but didn't want to invade his father's privacy with details.

Second, it was quite clear that his father got excellent care, for which Olbermann is grateful and which, apparently, did point out to him how lucky he was in contrast to the experience of so many others without his financial resources.

That's fine. I would have given him 5 or 10 minutes to let us know why he is so emotional about the issue.

But the hyperbole went on and on and on and on - and he contributed zip to the conversation.

The media, focused as always on the politics of the issue, have been MIA when it comes to informing people about the details of the various bills and the various trade offs (e.g., why a mandate is necessary - to have a large pool in which to spread risk; the difficulties of establishing the "sweet point" for a fine: if the price is too low, it will be cheaper to pay the fine than buy health care; if too high, the risks of non-compliance, effect on employment, etc.).

I had hoped, when I first heard about his plans for an hour-long "special comment", that he might focus on the key issues. Silly me. Just an endless series of hyperbolic statements about health care being about death, speculations about how those less fortunate must feel in similar situations, repeated details about his experience, mention of his sister, more details about his father.

The whole hour was a waste, a self-referential, poorly written, poorly argued mess.

Anybody who truly cares about health reform must have writhed in pain at the thought of what they could have done with a full hour in which they need not interview anybody or present opposing opinions.

Why couldn't MSNBC have given the hour to Uwe Reinhardt, a brilliant speaker on health care reform who knows the facts and how to present them.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Real health reform? Maybe in 2020?. Or 2030?

What most people don't realize is that even if the Congress passes some kind of weak health care reform package, none of the provisions will go into effect until 2013. (And in at least one version of the bill, the rate reforms will be phased in over 5 years!) That's right - until the start of Obama's second term. Apparently our politicians haven't considered what is going to happen if Obama declares victory in November and in January everybody sees their premiums going up. And people still lose their health insurance for pre-existing conditions. And still can't afford health insurance.

So, what will health insurance companies do between now and 2013? Everything they can, of course, to generate windfall profits so in 2013 they're sitting on pots of money.

Somewhere around 2020, then, Americans will realize that they were yet again snookered, just as they were in the 1990s with the Republican promise that HMOs would solve all our problems.

Luckily, I'll be on Medicare by then.

Jon Stewart - Second Home Run - Wall Street Again

After skewering the Democrats, Stewart turned his attention to Wall Street's latest method for making billions: high frequency trading. No doubt the Wall Street apologists will insist that these oomputer programs enhance the financial system but this is nothing but monopoly with real money and no assets. Nothing of value gets created.

High Frequency Trading

Jon Stewart Does it Again - On Our Pissant Democratic Majority

Stewart's September 30, 2009 broadcast hit two home runs right off the top. First, he skewers the Democratic Party, rightly so, for its inability to govern even with control of both houses and a super majority in the Senate.

On the Democratíc Party's Inability to Govern

And more:
How the Democratic Party Thinks

I've said it before: the Republican Party is a more effective Party than the Democratic Party and has been for almost 40 years now. Whether they are in the minority or the majority, whether there is a Republican or Democratic President, Republicans act as if they were in the majority. They don't care if they won the White House with the help of the Supreme Court. They don't care if they are, theoretically, "out in the wilderness". They believe in their principles and use every weapon at their disposal, no matter how outrageous, to achieve their ends.

The Democrats, however, ever since Jimmy Carter, have acted like scared rabbits. They are afraid of their shadows, afraid of being called "liberal" or "partisan". Even when they win, they act like losers.

It's even to drive a liberal insane. What do we have to do to elect people who actually will do what we want them to do?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baucus - orchestrating defeat of the Public Option

I just realized that Baucus has orchestrated his committee's hearings to defeat the public option.


First, he put the two public option amendments up before Conrad's co-op amendment. Now, Conrad's amendment has not a chance in hell of passing. It won't get any Republican votes and not enough Dem. votes to pass - but by bringing it up after the public option amendments, Baucus assures a "no" vote from Conrad on the public option amendments.

Second, by bringing them up near the start of deliberations rather than at the end, the proposers can't point to all of the failings in the Chairman's mark because Baucus can always assert that "amendment such-and-such" will solve that problem.

I sincerely hope that his poll ratings drop like the proverbial lead balloon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Health Care Reform - Blaming the Patient (Only in America)

One of the many depressing aspects of the health care "reform" process (more appropriately called the "preserve private health insurance profits" process) is the degree to which the patient is being blamed.

Republicans all but assert that Americans use too much health care because they don't pay directly for the services they get. To Republicans, there is no difference between buying health care and buying a car. Insurance company profits? Not an issue. The lack of true competition in most health insurance markets? Not a problem. Doctors ordering tests because they have a financial interest in the labs? Not a problem. No. American citizens are at fault.

But Democrats, too, blame the patient. We don't exercise enough. We don't eat right. We don't get regular checkups.

One can only conclude that Americans belong to a different species, that we are physically and psychologically distinct from Canadians, the British, the French, Scandinavians, the Japanese (who, BTW, visit doctors more often every year - an average of, if I recall the statistic properly, 17 times a year - than any other nationality), etc. all of whom live in countries where the average cost of health care as a share of GDP and per person is significantly less than it is in the good old U.S.A.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

CNN's Update Scroll - No So Up-to-Date

As of around 3PM PDT today (Sept. 8, 2009), CNN's update scroll was still saying that the San Francisco Bay Bridge would be open soon. Unfortunately for CNN, the bridge opened up around 5AM PDT today (Sept. 8, 2009).

It's bad enough that CNN seems to rely on the scroll for all the news (with the programming all devoted to political gossip), and that I have to watch TV5 (France) or RAI (Italy) or Univision to find out what's going on in the world, the network can't even manage, apparently, to update its scroll more than once/day.

Obama's School Speech: Hypocrisy on Both Sides

The whole brouhaha about Obama's speech to school children is depressing because there is so much hypocrisy on both sides.

The Democrats just "can't understand", it's a speech encouraging students to study and make the best of themselves, we should respect the office of the President even if we don't agree with the positions of the current inhabitant, etc. Now, I don't remember what happened when Reagan and Bush 41 gave similar speeches, but I am willing to bet that liberals didn't much like it and for pretty much the same reason that Republicans object to Obama's speech: because they didn't want their children exposed to the opinions of a President whom they opposed.

Now, Republicans are being quite upfront about why they have objected to the broadcast: they don't want their children being exposed to the opinions of a President whom they oppose. I heard one Republican today, African-American, who said it was an even worse offense from this President because he is so superbly literate, such a great orator! (He, I assume, wouldn't mind half so much if Obama were as incoherent as Bush 43). But, of course, I'm guessing that these same Republicans saw nothing wrong with the speeches by Reagan (also renowned as a superb orator) or Bush 41 and argued that one should show respect for the Office of the President.

Personally, as a Liberal, I'm opposed to all speeches by all Presidents, of any party, directly to school students because I do think it smells a little, admittedly a very, very little, of Big Brother. I might feel differently if, in all 3 cases, it had been the Secretary of Education giving the speech - but, then again, I really like our current Ed. Sec. and can't even remember who they were under Reagan and Bush 41 - so maybe I would have objected in any case.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Barney Frank at the National Press Club

Barney Frank exemplifies the best of the Congress's seniority system: superior intelligence combined with a deep knowledge of the issues and the political environment which comes only with time on the job (and a willingness to learn and be effective).

He's also just plain, damn entertaining:

Barney Frank at the National Press Club - 7/27/09

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Media Missing in Action: Prof. Gates, Cambridge & "Disorderly Conduct"

While the media have, not without reason, focused on the racial profiling in this incident, I've seen no mention of the reason for the disorderly conduct charge.

Was Gates drunk? Was he destroying property? Was he waking up the neighbors? Or is it simply illegal in Cambridge to argue with, be disrespectful to or otherwise insult a police officer? And if so, what kind of nation have we become when the exercise of free speech, however unpleasant, is prohibited when the object of same is a police officer? (Don't answer.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Republicans - Inconsistency is a Tool for Killing Health Reform

One of the most interesting aspects of the Senate's Health Committee hearings on health reform is how Republicans argue all sides of the case in order to kill the bill.

For example: they spend a lot of time asserting that Medicare and Medicaid are monumental failures because they cost too much and because large percentages* of doctors refuse to accept Medicare or Medicaid patients. But, of course, if one increases how much the government pays providers under those two programs, the costs will only be higher. The Republican solution? Obviously, they want to kill Medicare but, during the hearings, the idea seems to be to move Medicaid recipients into the private market (the health care exchanges).

With respect to the health care exchanges, the Republicans are endlessly creative. They argue about who should be eligible for subsidies. One proposal, to move people at the 150% of poverty level to Medicaid, fails their smell test because, first, it is unfair to those who are at 151%** of the poverty level and because Medicaid is a failed system giving second-class care. But, of course, if the alternative is to provide subsidies to those people so they can buy health insurance from an exchange, the cost of the bill goes up. Which is unacceptable.

Then we come to penalties for individuals and companies who don't buy health insurance. The size of the penalties, of course, is a real issue. But, although Republicans admit that it has to be high enough to encourage both to buy health insurance rather than simply pay the penalty, they object to even small penalties ($750 per full-time employee) because they will discourage small businesses from hiring new employees and might even force them to fire employees. Obviously, setting an appropriate penalty is a key to mandates which are key to covering everybody. But Republicans know that if they kill the penalties or make them really small, lots of people and businesses will rationally choose to pay the penalty rather than buy health insurance and that will put an added burden on the system which could lead to its failure - which, of course, is what they want.

Another argument about small businesses came up today. Sen. Murkowski of Alaska proposed that "small business" be defined for the purpose of the bill not as a company with less than 25 employees but as one with 500 employees because that is what the SBA uses as the definition for a small business. Now most of us don't normally consider a 500-person company to be small. And I think it was Enzi, as usual, who pointed out how unfair it would be to the company that wanted to add another employee (from 500 to 501**) because the penalty or requirement to buy health insurance would then kick in. Now, remember, Republicans like our employer-provided health care system; they just don't want to penalize companies who choose not to provide health insurance, no matter what their size.

Paying for the system? Republicans have proposed amendments specifically prohibiting higher taxes or penalties or any other method that might be used to pay for the program in order to, according to them of course, keep Obama's promise not to raise taxes. Without these elements, the program becomes prohibitively expensive. So they could oppose the bill on the grounds that it will increase the deficit.

Republicans are sure that "free market competition" will solve the cost and access problems, but they object to letting the Secretary of HHS negotiate rates for a public plan. Why? Because it will inevitably lead to the Secretary's imposing reimbursement rates which is the problem with the Medi programs. Republicans worry a lot about what may happen in the future because "that's what always happens". One of their solutions is to set the rates of a public plan as an average of the rates in the state. That many states in the country have health insurance markets that are either monopolies or duopolies - where there is, in essence, no market pressure to reduce rates - is irrelevant.

And, of course, they oppose any kind of reimbursement system based on "best practices". So how do they expect to stop the huge annual growth in health care costs? Well, letting the "free market" work. I wish, just once, some Democrat would point out that we've always had a "free market" and it doesn't seem to have held down costs. (They might also point out that Republicans assured everybody back in the 1990s that HMOs would increase coverage and decrease costs.)

And, as usual, the Republicans continue to try to talk the bill to death. Yesterday, Coburn introduced an amendment to replace the entire bill that they have been arguing about for weeks. I think this must be at least the second or third time the Repubicans have tried this. And, each time, they argue their side for ages. (I've lost track of the number of Republican amendments that have consumed a full hour of debate each - and the number of amendments proposed and pending has reached, I think, somewhere into the 400s.) Obviously, a Democrat-controlled committee isn't going to junk a bill they've spent weeks on so the only reason for this kind of amendment is to prolong the process - past the August recess.

Indeed, I am baffled by the continuing efforts of Democrats to accept Republican amendments of any kind since they must know that they will not get a single Republican vote to move the bill from the committee to the floor. Is it possible that Democrats still just don't understand Republicans?

* - this committee, and, for that matter, the rest of the Congress, needs a CBO for statistics. Representatives and Senators on both sides of the aisle throw statistics around willy nilly, rarely providing a source. A lot of time, I suspect the stats come out of their own heads, based on their oh-so-good personal experience. I'm not sure it will help the Republicans who tend to ignore studies that contradict "what they know" (even after the CBO scored a revised bill as costing about 600 billion rather than 1.5 trillion, Republicans continued to use the latter number).

**Democrats can be really dumb. Whenever an issue comes up about what constitutes a small business, or what penalty makes sense, or the percent of poverty or whatever, a Republican will wax eloquent about the poor business or person who just misses the cutoff point (26 employees, 151% of poverty), etc. I keep waiting for some Democrat to point out that this happens whenever one uses a cutoff point for anything. Earning one more dollar in income can move a person from one tax bracket to another. Short of never using a cutoff point for anything, this lack of fairness is inevitable.

Sotomayor - Proving She's Conservative

One of the things that has struck me about the hearings so far is the Democratic effort to prove that Sotomayor is, if not truly conservative, moderate-to-right. That might be OK as a tactic if they were trying to cover up the fact that she is liberal. Unfortunately, her history suggests that this positioning is correct. She is not, on the evidence, likely to be a strong advocate for the liberal side of the court.

In short, Obama (like Clinton), has gone for a "moderate" judge in the hope of, thereby, avoiding Conservative attacks. Republican Presidents, in contrast, have sought out the most Conservative judges they could find in the hope that they could pass them off as moderate.

This tendency on the part of liberal Democrats to cede ground to the Conservatives even before the battle is engaged has existed now for at least 2o years. What will it take to get us back to 1960s-style liberal courage on the part of Democrats?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Affordable Health Choices Act Should Be Called the PPIA

The Affordable Health Choices Act which the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has been struggling with should really be called the Preserve the Private Health Insurance Industry Act or, in its shorter form, the PPIA (Preserve Private Insurance Act).

It is designed to provide access not to health "care" but to health "insurance". If you can't afford health insurance or you lose your insurance because you lose your job, or you choose the wrong insurance plan because you assumed you wouldn't suffer a major injury or a major illness - well, tough luck. You're uninsured and your access to health care has just disappeared.

In no other major industrialized country is it assumed that people have to estimate how much health insurance they can afford against the chance that they will get sick or injured in order to "guarantee" themselves access to health care.

As long as health insurance depends on sufficient income to buy it, and as long as plans have a trade-off between monthly premiums and deductibles and co-pays, millions of Americans will continue to be either uninsured or under-insured ... if for no other reason than the simple tendency for ordinary people to assume that nothing bad will happen to them.

As for the "public plan option", lambert at Corrente has come up with the perfect analogy: The Public Plan Option Explained By Lambert, at Corrente

Health Care Reform: The Health Exchange Myth

I've been following the health care debate pretty closely, and the proposal for health care exchanges seems to be a cornerstone for individual choice. But it's really just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: a very healthy single 25-year-old man working a minimum-wage job goes to an exchange. Now, after rent and groceries and phone service, he doesn't have a lot of extra money floating around. The only plan he can afford from the "wealth of choices available" is a $50/month premium with a 10K deductible. He gets it. 6 months later, in spite of a flu shot, he gets the flu which turns into pneumonia. He spends weeks in the hospital. He loses his job. His health bills total $20,000. But he has a 10K deductible. And he doesn't have $10K in a savings account. And he's unemployed because the company he worked for doesn't have anything like sick days off. The fact that he had a "choice" of health plans is irrelevant.

Or take another case: somebody has bought a cadillac plan from an exchange, paid premiums for 5 years, then loses her job. Unemployment benefits run out. She has a choice: pay the rent, buy groceries, pay for utilities or pay for health care premiums. She's healthy so she drops the health care. Then she gets really sick. And she can't get help except from an emergency room because she no longer has health insurance.

The central problem with health care exchanges and this so-called health care reform is that everything depends on a person's being able to buy health insurance, pay the monthly premiums and cover the deductible. It is a system designed to save the private health insurance industry not to guarantee health care for all Americans.

No citizen of any other industrialized country has to depend on being employed, and earning enough to buy health insurance, to get health care. Only in the U.S., even under the proposed plans, is health care still to be a privilege not a right.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gov. Sanford (S. Carolina) and his Mistress - Mistress?

Mistress? Sanford's "mistress"? Did somebody turn the clock back 100 years? This is 2009. And even if it were not, doesn't the term "mistress" normally mean a woman who is being maintained by a man absent a marriage certificate? Is there any evidence that Sanford has been maintaining a second household with his Argentinian lover?

Who in our irrelevant media began using this word to describe Sanford's lover?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Energy Bill - House Debate (June 26, 2009)

Well, I caught a couple hours of the debate and as a piece of political theatre, at times it became downright funny - esp. the long Republican inability to locate the "official copy of the bill".

Unfortunately, like most of these floor debates, one hears little or nothing about the contents of the bill itself, simply the consequences of its enactment. And those consequences can be predicted by who is supporting/opposing. Republicans, as usual, assert that it amounts to a huge tax on every American, that global climate change doesn't exist, that this bill won't do anything for our energy situation, and will cost millions of jobs at a time we can't afford to lose even one.

The Democrats defend it as the first step in energy independence and a job creator.

The only thing notable, and typical of Democrats, is that the method of controlling carbon emissions (cap-and-trade) was chosen over a tax on carbon emissions in order to get bi-partisan support - because cap-and-trade is a "free market" solution. I suspect that, as with the stimulus, there won't be a single Republican vote for it. * What is frustrating about this is that, from what I've read, the Republicans are probably right when they say that it won't work and that the system will be gamed.

So what we have here is a "Conservative" solution that won't work being passed by Democrats in the name of preserving the Conservatives' sacred free market strategy as the solution to all problems - that won't get a single Conservative vote.

With luck, I'll be dead before the planet has gone to hell, but what makes me especially angry is that the neanderthal politicians who have been denying climate change for the past 30 years will also be dead so they won't be around for their grandchildren and great-grandhildren to spit in their faces for putting their petty political philosophies and short term profits over the life of the planet.

*Update: I was wrong. 8 Republicans voted for the bill. 44 Democrats voted against it. The vote was very close.

Two Kings, One Fate: Jackson and Presley

Jackson dead at 50 from cardiac arrest. Presley dead at 44 from heart failure.

It is hard not to think of the two together. Both were crowned "Kings" of the music world. Outworldly, in their early careers, both seemed to share several characteristics aside from their outsize talent: a personable quality that made the fan think they would be nice to know, charm, and a certain shyness. "Nice young men" one might say.

Both of their lives became nightmares all too soon. Presley was around 21 when he made his breakthrough; Jackson was about 10 or 11 (as part of the Jackson 5). Both had relatively short "active" careers followed by years of decline. One can argue about the absolute lengths but Presley had about 10-12 years of enormous success followed by a decade of decline. Jackson's lasted about 20 years followed by around 2 decades of decline. (A bit of me can't help but wonder if Jackson's new tour would have been his "Las Vegas".)

What happened? How did two such highly talented, apparently normal young men spiral out of control?

Such personal disasters are certainly not unknown in the entertainment industry - but one tends to think of the victims as tortured souls (think Piaf or Joplin) whose lives would have been no happier had they not been entertainers. I've not done a study. I don't know if this perception is accurate. And, perhaps, the incidence of lives gone bad in the entertainment industry is no greater than in the general population or in other industries. We simply notice it because the people in question are well-known.

Is the industry basically dangerous to emotional and mental stability? Or is there some link between genius and a tendency toward self destructiveness? Are popular and jazz musicians more susceptible than actors? Is super success, fast success especially dangerous? Or are we looking at some kind of natural burnout, like a firecracker display? There is, of course, no way to know for sure.

Still, it is hard not to wonder if anything could have been done to save these two young men from themselves so that the next time a King is crowned he gets to die peacefully in bed after a long and happy career.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Raymond E. Feist: Rift Saga - Warning & A Reading Sequence

First, the warning: if you read fantasy novels for the pleasure, among other things, of seeing the good guys win and the bad guys die (ala Eddings), Feist is not for you. This author kills off characters. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if he introduces characters just for the pleasure of getting rid of them. Note: I'm not talking about characters that would logically die of old age given the number of novels and the time period they cover. No. Feist kills characters, characters you like. (I don't think anybody actually gets to die in bed of old age w/ friends and family around.)

Now, obviously, he's not the only fantasy writer who does this. A lot of good people die in Kurtz's Deryni novels - but those deaths, however painful to the reader - seem integral to the narrative. Feist, on the other hand, just kills them off. They rarely even die after multi-page battle descriptions. They're knifed or slashed or bashed. One moment alive, one moment dead. One long-time character disappears in one novel. We find out later on that he was killed and where his body was found. That's it. Nothing more. In another, there's a massacre early in a novel whose only purpose seems to be to get rid of a bunch of characters. No reason. The rest of the novel could have been written with barely a change had those characters not died. So it is the casual nature, the purposelessness (unless it is the only way Feist thinks he can add some "darkness" to his novels) of the deaths.

In short, if you read Feist don't invest yourself in any of the characters unless you are prepared to mourn their deaths.

Now, as for the sequence in which you should read the novels, it's not easy to do because Feist seems to back-and-fill: the publication sequence bears little relationship to the internal time lines. However, based on the series I've read so far and synopses on the Crydee web set, I recommend reading them in the following order:
The original Riftwar Saga:
Magician: Apprentice
Magician: Master
A Darkness at Sethanon

The Empire [Kelewan] Novels

These stories take place on the other side of the Rift roughly parallel to the events in the original Riftwar Saga. Still, there are enough references to events that occur in the Riftwar Saga that I recommend reading these novels after you've completed the first four.
Daughter of the Empire
Servant of the Empire
Mistress of the Empire

Based on synopses, I think the Legends of the Riftwar novels may fit in here - may even be more or less contemporaneous with the Riftwar/Empire novels (sort of like missing episodes) - but I've not yet read them and will update later this year.

Legends of the Riftwar
Honoured Enemy
Murder in LaMut
Jimmy the Hand

The first 3 Krondor novels (the only ones I've read) definitely follow the Riftwar and Empire series and precede the two "standalone" books (Prince of the Blood and King's Buccaneer).
The Krondor Series
Krondor the Betrayal
Krondor the Assassins
Krondor Tear of the Gods

Krondors Sons

Prince of the Blood
King's Buccaneer - lots of characters die, esp. early in the novel.

The Serpentwar Saga
Shadow of a Dark Queen
Rise of a Merchant Prince
Rage of a Demon King
Shards of a Broken Crown

Conclave of the Shadows

Talon of the Silver Hawk
King of Foxes
Exiles Return

Again, based on synopses, I think these two sequences follow the previous, but I can't guarantee it.
Darkwar Saga
Flight of the Nighthawks
Into a Dark Realm
Wrath of a Mad God
Demonwar Saga
Rides a Dread Legion
** At the Gates of Darkness

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Senate and Debates

In watching the endless opening statements of the Senate Health Committee (June 17, 2009) and the various speeches on the floor of the Senate, it is clear that the U.S. Senate is NOT a deliberative body. The Senators speak at each other. They never engage with each other.

The Republicans repeat the same phrases over and over (as do, of course, many Democrats). But they just spout, they don't argue or discuss. When a Republican talks about government bureaucrats interfering in the doctor-patient relationship, a Democrat can't ask that Republican about the interference of private insurance committees. Similarly, when Republicans deride Comparative Effectiveness, Democrats can't ask them about decisions made by clerks in insurance companies.

It may make these "debates" more civil, since we don't see the shouting matches all too common on TV, but it also makes them incredibly frustrating because there is no way for the observer to find out if there is any thought behind the boilerplate phrases.

Health Care Reform: Cheers for Bernie Sanders Who Confronts the Elephant

A huge big cheer for Bernie Sanders for being the only Senator on the Senate Health Committee, perhaps the only Senator or only person in either the House or the Senate who has had the nerve to address the invisible elephant in this debate: the fact that health insurance companies have only one obligation and that is to be profitable.

He had the courage to point out that health insurance profits over the past several years have increased over 400%, that their executives make huge salaries (one ex-CEO left with over 1 billion dollars in stock options), and that they hire armies of administrators to deny coverage.

Sanders is the only member of this committee who has also asked the fundamental question: is health care a universal right? Because one can't honestly evaluate a reform package without deciding if you believe health care is a right or a privilege or just a nice option.

Check Sanders out on C-Span - about the 40 min. mark

p.s. Sherrod Brown, Sen. of Ohio, gave a speech on the floor that was an extension of his comments in the committee. He had the courage to address the competition issues raised by opponents of a public plan. He pretty much made the obvious observation (I'm paraphrasing from memory) that if the private insurance companies can't compete with a public plan maybe it is the fault of the insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, the health insurance lobby has launched a massive campaign to prevent inclusion of a public health insurance option with which they would have to compete.

I guess competition is a good thing, unless they are the ones who have to compete. If you have a public option, insurance companies--the President says repeatedly that the whole point of [Page: S6703]an option is that the public plan will compete with a private plan, which will keep the private plans more honest. We have done that with student loans. Fifteen years ago, the only game in town for students, by and large, if they wanted to borrow money for college, was to go to a local bank, or another service, which were all private and unregulated. President Clinton, in the mid-1990s, decided maybe we should have a direct government program so students could borrow directly from the Federal Government. Do you know what happened? The banks brought their interest rates down. The banks started to provide better service. The banks behaved better. That is analogous to what we will see with the public plan.

The conservatives in this body, who are major recipients of insurance company money for their campaigns, whose philosophies are always that business can do it better, the people who have aligned their political careers with the insurance industry all oppose the public option, the public plan. Why? It is simple. It is because insurance companies will have to cut down their administrative costs, maybe even pay lower salaries to their top executives. Maybe they will have to change their marketing practices, be less wasteful, and maybe they will behave a little better. In that case, the public option was competing with private banks, and everybody got better. A public health insurance option competing with the private insurance companies will make everybody get better. That is the whole point.

With private insurance competition, when it is just the insurance companies competing with each other, funny things tend to happen. We see huge salaries and, second, a huge bureaucracy in the insurance companies and, third, we see all kinds of marketing campaigns, and we see huge overhead and administrative costs--sometimes up to 35, 40 percent.

We also see that the term ``private insurance competition'' is often simply an oxymoron. In Ohio, the two largest insurance companies account for 58 percent of the market. I am not a lawyer, so I didn't take the antitrust course. I didn't go to law school. When you have two companies that have 58 percent of the market, that is not competition. In some Ohio cities--as I assume it is in the Presiding Officer's State of Illinois--the two largest insurance companies account for 89 percent of the market. That is not exactly healthy competition. If we bring in a public option and compete with these two companies, their rates would come down and salaries for top executives would come down. There would be no more multimillion-dollar salaries, and administrative costs would be cut. They would be leaner and meaner, a better insurance company as a result.

C=Span Source

Health Reform: "Affordable, Accessible"

I am beginning to hate this phrase, used by both Democrats and Republicans. Do citizens in other major industrialized countries ever ask themselves if health care is "affordable"? No. Of course not. Health care is a right. Yes, they pay for it through their taxes but they don't have to ask what the cost is when they need to see a doctor.

But in this U.S. reform movement, the highest goal is to make health care "affordable".

I'm not sure what is meant by "accessible".

But the Republicans are, at least, honest. They don't argue for health care for all. They talk about "access to health care insurance". Think about that. Access to insurance not to health care.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Health Care Reform: Why Should A Public Plan Cost the Government Money?

I'm baffled by the assumption that a public plan must be paid for by the Federal government.

If private insurance companies are forbidden to "cherry pick" insurees, then a public plan should be able, theoretically at least, to fully fund itself from the fees paid by the people it insures.

In other words, aren't we talking about a non-profit insurance option? Yes, such a plan will probably undercut private insurance companies. It, after all, will have no shareholders to consider, probably won't pay its executives multi-multi-million dollar salaries and won't have an army of employees whose only job is to deny coverage.

But that's a problem for private insurance companies to solve - not a problem for the federal budget.

Obviously, this won't work if private insurance companies are allowed to choose to insure only the young and healthy while all the rest of us flock to the public plan - but if no plan can discriminate against people based on pre-existing conditions (not just in providing insurance but in the cost of that insurance), then a public option should pretty much be able to fund itself with, perhaps, some government backstop for those citizens who simply can't afford health insurance at any price but are not eligible for Medicaid.

Left Missing in Action: Nobody should get between you and your doctor

One of the GOP mantras re health reform (listen to Grassley et. al.) is that Americans don't want government bureaucrats to come between them and their doctors - which is why we should oppose single-payer and a public option and comparative effectiveness.

The most frustrating thing about this mantra is the almost total lack of response by the so-called liberal media and Democrats.

We already have bureaucrats getting between patients and their doctors. They are employed by private health insurance companies. Thousands (tens of thousands? millions?) of them are employed to deny coverage to patients. Some doctors spend 20% of their time arguing with these people.

Now, I agree with the basic premise. Health care decisions should be between patients and their doctors - but if somebody has to get in between the two in order to reduce overall health expenditures, I'd rather it be a civil servant who can't be fired for saying "yes" (and who may rely on comparative effectiveness research rather than cost) than a private insurance company employee whose salary depends on reducing costs and increasing the bottom line.

Please explain to me, somebody please explain, why this very simple and accurate response to this frequently repeated Conservative canard seems to be almost completely lacking from the health care debate.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Media Missing in Action: Dealer Closings/June 3, 2009 Senate Hearing

I've spent months watching a lot of frustrating Congressional hearings on various aspects of the financial crisis this past year, but one of the most frustrating was the June 3, 2009 Senate hearing into the closing of dealers due to the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies.

It was an illustration both of the limits of hearings and the wholesale failure of the media to act as news organizations.

The primary failure of the hearing was to get an answer to a central dispute: the dealers asserted that they were not cost centers, that they cost GM and Chrysler absolutely nothing, that they paid for everything they got (cars, signs, advertising, etc.) so, since the two dealers there were profitable, they didn't understand why they would be closed. GM and Chrysler asserted that they had to close dealerships to become profitable.

Now, this seems to me to be an issue of fact, not opinion. But, after listening to all the questions and the responses of GM and Chrysler, I still don't understand the issue. Isn't this something that CNBC or Fox Fin., at the very least, should have been reporting on and explaining?

Nor, during a week of endless commentary about right-wing-nut opposition to Sotomayor, did any of the major "news" networks think it might be interesting to, say, identify which Senators complaining about dealer closings opposed the bailouts, insisted that union employees had to "share" the burden, etc., argued that these companies should be allowed to go bankrupt (what did they think would happen to dealerships during a bankrupcy?). One would think that an hypocrisy watch would be at least as entertaining as debates over whether a Latina woman would be a better judge than a white man. But, of course, that would take research. They'd have to check the voting records, watch the hearing, match up questions with voting records. Gossiping with each other about "racist" statements is, after all, so much easier.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

When did "doctors" become "docs"?

During the various hearings on health care reform, my ear has been assaulted by the word "docs". When, exactly, did "doctors" become "docs"? No, I am not a doctor, but, quite frankly, "docs" seems to me to be rather insulting or, at least, condescending.

Kathleen Sebelius - unwilling to commit to anything

The other day I saw a rebroadcast (C-SPAN) of a hearing in early May, 2009 (Charles Rangel's committee) on health reform and it was yet another disappointment. The administration has no plan. Sebelius just wants to "work with Congress". Even on the issue of doctor-owned hospitals, which she has elsewhere condemned because they are not cost-effective (there's a real conflict of interest that encourages unnecessary and costly tests), she waffled.

Most of the things she talked about, like "encouraging" hospitals to implement checklists to lower infection rates, are fine - but there don't seem to be any sticks or carrots, for that matter. Who, for example, is going to make sure that insurance pays for outcomes rather than tests?

As with the credit card "reform" bill, all we are likely to see is more tinkering around the edges that will leave insurance companies with huge profits and citizens with too-expensive health care.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cheney's Fear

I'm not the first person to point out that Cheney is afraid of a lot of things. Remember his "undisclosed location" while Pres. Bush eventually returned to the White House after 9/11? Then there was his asking Google to "hide" his official residence from Google Earth (no such privilege for the White House).

This fear was on hand again in his most recent speech with his picture of terrorists waltzing into the U.S. with a nuclear weapon (something even countries like Iran and Korea seem to have trouble producing) and the need to do everything to prevent such a thing happening. This is his "1%" theory: if there is even a 1% chance of something bad happening, all measures to prevent (well, non-economic measures: consider the consequences if Conservatives applied this rule to climate change) are justified.

Think about this for a minute. Short of locking up everybody in prison, there is no way to make the country 100% safe. And if Gitmo is any example, our ability to identify potentially dangerous people is rather low. (So far, over s 500 or the some 800+ detained have been released - by the Bush Administration.)

Although I deplore pop psychology, I can't resist indulging in it. Cheney has suffered 4 heart attacks. Is it possible that Gitmo and torture are the price America has paid for a Vice President scared beyond reason of dying?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Terrorists in your backyard jails?

To listen to both Democrats and Republicans about closing Guantanamo and transferring those terrorists to U.S. jails, one would think that we were talking about supernatural aliens.

Now, I've not made a study of terrorists, but those guys who flew into the World Trade Center weren't super-human. And they didn't take down the towers with other-worldly weapons. And they could have been stopped by ordinary people.

Moreover, there are, I understand, only a couple hundred left of the "worst of the worst" - who have, it appears, been there for years. It is unlikely that they know much of anything worthwhile at this point or, for that matter, would be trusted by their former associates if they went home.

As for our jails: I know Conservatives like to complain about how we baby criminals, but most U.S. prisons today aren't much better than what could be found in Dickens' England - and some do hold prisoners who are every bit as dangerous and violent, I would suspect, as any of the prisoners at Gitmo.

If our top-security prisons are incapable of preventing terrorists from escaping and doing harm, isn't the logical follow up conclusion that maybe they are not sufficiently secure to handle our native criminals?

But, then, that has been the problem all along. Gitmo, the abandonment of habeas corpus, the military "tribunals" were all created by men who fundamentally disapprove of America's judicial system as it exists, who fundamentally still believe (in spite of conviction rates exceeding 90%) that our court system babies criminals and ignores victims, who think that the law unnecessarily hamstrings the police. Gitmo was created by people who still think the Miranda ruling was judicial activism at its worst, who don't think that the accused have a right to counsel.

Isn't it time for somebody, somewhere in the media to confront the fear-mongering and the fundamental disconnect that created Gitmo and keeps it alive?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Obama to the Left: So What Choice Do You Have

In watching Obama back away from many of his campaign promises, might the Left conclude that Obama is to the Left as Bush was to the Far Right: more lip service than action?

Yes, the Shrub did actually support a lot of the right wing agenda but, to a large extent, Republicans have never given the far right religious component of the party what it has most wanted because, of course, Republicans know that that constituency has no other place to go.

So it is with the left and Obama. Regardless of his poll numbers in 2012, he will be the Democrat's nominee. The Republican is bound to be more conservative. So Obama can break every promise he has ever made and all the Left can do is complain.

The main question, however, is about Obama's continuing tendency to cave in. Remember all those pieces of the Stimulus Package he put in to please the Republicans? For which he got zip?

Then there's health care. He never promised what Hillary did - universal coverage - but month by month his criteria for reform have shrunk until they are limited to "lowering costs" and "improving access". In short, tinker around the edges and call it reform.

Guantanamo is still open. The pictures won't be released. Military tribunals are back. (Military tribunals, for those who don't know, are designed to convict. There is no presumption of innocence.)

His justice department continues, in court, to defend Bush positions.

Torture? Let's just forget the past, shall we? Cheney feels no compunction about attacking Obama, but Obama refuses to attack the Bush administration.

Leftists may ask themselves why. We Hillary supporters know why. Obama, like Bill Clinton, seems pathologically incapable of fighting for anything. Not being a psychologist, I don't know if this is because Bill and Obama simply don't like conflict or because there is simply nothing about which they feel strongly enough to be willing to fight for it. Maybe a bit of both.

The Left wanted Obama. Now they've got him and it turns out that he is, as anybody who had checked into his political history or listened to him campaign would know, Bush Light.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Media and Dick Cheney - Let Him Talk

I'm baffled by all this blather, esp. by liberals, about the ethics of Dick Cheney's criticizing Obama.

Cheney's a citizen. He has a right to criticize. I don't care if it's usual or not for former VPs and POTUSes. (Heaven knows, I wish Gore had opened his mouth more than once rather than retreating into a cave.)

Let him talk. Period.

Health Care Reform - And they said Hillary's plan was too complicated?

Well, I watched another hearing on health care reform yesterday, and it will take a bill at least a hundred pages long, and an army of administrators, to implement everything that is being suggested.

The elements of reform:
1. Build on employer health insurance because many companies support it. (Could it be because health insurance benefits are tax-advantaged and are, thus, less expensive to provide than higher salaries?)

2. Competition (except from a public plan). People admit that the current system is flawed but, when push comes to shove, they do not seem to fully grasp that we have had a free market, competitive health insurance system for 60 years and that is the system that is not working. They insist that this flawed system must be preserved.

3. Require or not that self-insured companies provide employees with choice by somehow associating them with health care exchanges. And what about the companies that offer only a couple choices?

4. Health care exchanges (or not). Weren't these the centerpiece of Hillary-care?

5. Pay for bundled services rather than for individual services. (And just who will implement or enforce this?)

6. Cap (or not) the tax-free status of employer-provided health insurance. Lots of ideas here: regional caps, income caps, phased in caps over x number of years so, eventually, the differences are based solely on different COLs. Grassley thinks this would be unconstitutional. Some witnesses pointed out that COL differences exist even with a single state. Arkansas doesn't want to pay for New York's higher COL (where, of course, everybody's salary or wages are adjusted upwards anyways). Who would design these? Who would be responsible for enforcing these? What kinds of changes would have to be made to the income tax rules? How about the administrative effects for multi-state corporations?

7. Incentives for best practices. Again, great idea - but who sets the best practices and who enforces them.

8. Use health savings accounts.

9. Health IT. Obviously, paper records don't make a lot of sense. But health IT is a lot harder to implement than many seem to think, to say nothing of simply being used (every time I go to Kaiser, I'm asked the same question about drugs I'm allergic to. I've provided that information at least a hundred times.) Data format and data definition issues can be extremely difficult to solve. In addition, as one witness pointed out, hospitals may not want record interoperability because that would make it easier for doctors to move patients from one hospital to another.

10. Put a "tax" on bad behaviors such as smoking or overeating.

11. Tax credits or tax deductions.

12. Rein in costs before expanding coverage.

13. Expand coverage before reining in costs.

14. The Massachusetts experience gets nothing but high marks, but I've read criticisms from Mass. doctors who would much prefer single payer. Not a word about those criticisms.

15. A public plan option? There is some support, but the key seems to be in making it so unattractive that private insurance companies won't lose any customers. (It seems not to have occurred to anybody in power that if a public plan option would attract citizens away from private insurance companies that maybe the problem is with the latter rather than the former. And that it is the insurance companies which should be expected to change their policies.)

16. Preserve (?) the ability of citizens to keep the doctors they like. Again, selective awareness operates here. Employees who lose or change their jobs often lose access to the doctors they have because their health insurance options change.

17. In all of these hearings, I've not heard a single word about the dozens of forms doctors must complete, the army of clerks they have to hire, the hours they must spend on the phone trying to get a procedure paid for. I've not heard a single word about the portion of a health care premium that goes to the insurance company's administrative costs (mainly for denying coverage), executive salaries, or profits.

18. American exceptionalism. Baucus insists that we need a uniquely American solution. (I think he read a New Yorker article). No witness has ever been asked to explain why European nations pay less for health care but get better results. Are Americans a unique species? Is it impossible for us to learn anything at all from the experiences of different countries? Except for some negative comments about Canada and England re those awful wait times, nobody pays any attention to any system outside the U.S.

I've no doubt forgotten some of the other requirements. But the key to all of this sturm und drang seems to be that private insurance companies must be preserved at all costs.

As I said in an earlier post, real health care reform is DOA. We are doomed to lots of tinkering around the edges that will not provide universal coverage and that won't reduce costs (except, of course, by denying coverage).

Health Care Reform - DOA?

During the past couple of months, I've seen Q&A with Sen. Baucus, Grassley, and Hoyer (on C-SPAN) - and it is clear that not only is single payer DOA but so is a Public Plan Option. Obama himself appears lukewarm in his support (with each new statement by Obama on health care, it appears that his minimum requirements become broader and less meaningful) - but then I don't think there is anything Obama is truly willing to fight for.

It looks as if we'll get the worst of all possible worlds: a mandate to buy insurance based on a poverty level that bears no resemblance to reality with cut-rate policies that probably won't be worth the premiums anyways.

What I find especially frustrating is that Democrats continue to echo Republican insistence that individuals must be responsible for their own health care (lose weight, exercise, etc.) but never say a word about how Insurance company administrative costs (8-14% not including what individual doctors must do to fill out dozens of forms for diff. companies) and profits (all those high executive salaries) contribute to high health care costs.

Oh, Grassley is also dead set against comparative effectiveness; he doesn't want doctors to be reimbursed based on "govt" guidelines. Again, I've heard no Democrat point out to him that insurance companies spend millions (billions?) of dollars finding all kinds of reasons to deny coverage.

Torture - The Questions Not Asked

One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on torture, besides the essential point that the United States of America has been for years now debating the fine points of what constitutes torture and what does not, is the absence of what seems to me to be the most basic and logical questions about the logical consequences of the arguments in favor of torture.

Lindsey Graham believes that torture is defined by
1. it's effectiveness. If it works, it isn't torture.
2. the target. If the target is a terrorist (e.g., a bad person), it isn't torture.
3. perceived danger. If Americans are threatened, it isn't torture.

Where do these assumptions leave us?
Under Graham's assumptions, the Spanish and Italian Inquisitors were justified in torturing Jews. They were, after all, heretics and the "killers of Christ". Under his assumptions, Jean D'Arc deserved her treatment. She was a heretic. Under Graham's assumptions, the Germans and Japanese were justified in torturing Allied soldiers and spies who, after all, had important knowledge about allied plans that would directly kill thousands upon thousands of German and Japanese citizens. The Vichy French were justified in torturing French Partisans, for the same reason.

Think about the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Using Graham's definitions, the Germans and the Japanese would have been well within their rights to torture any person, soldier or civilian (e.g., a spy), who might have had knowledge that would help those nations protect their cities and citizens. (For all we know, had the Japanese understood what an atom bomb could do, they might have surrendered. We didn't give them the chance. We didn't even give them time to contemplate the effects of Hiroshima before we dropped another bomb on Nagasaki.)

If a nation's being in danger is the sole justification required, then every nation in every war, whether conventional or guerrilla, is justified in torturing anybody it captures who may, and I emphasize may, have knowledge that could limit or prevent the loss of life on the side of the questioner. Indeed, followed to its logical conclusion, guerrillas and rebels (such as the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese) are justified in using these techniques against the people they capture, for exactly the same reason.

If preventing loss of life is the primary justification, why don't we let police pick up potential criminals and torture them? Or use these "enhanced interrogation techniques" against people who have been arrested? The U.S. had and has a number of very violent people who have committed or who might commit horrendous crimes. Shouldn't our police have been permitted to use these techniques on the unibomber? Or on Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? What is the difference between these people and Al-Kaeda?

Under Graham's propositions, the Russians were justified in torturing Francis Gary Powers. He was, after all, a spy (not a soldier captured on the battlefield). The North Koreans were justified in torturing the sailors of the USS Pueblo.

Another Grahamism: well, maybe we shouldn't do these things but let's not tell our enemies. Excuse me? Maybe I've watched too many World War II movies, but didn't a number of enemy forces surrender to American troops at least in part because they knew they would be treated well?

If any of these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were applied against American soldiers or citizens by a foreign government would we consider them to be torture? Of course. Unless memory fails me, we have routinely objected to even such "mild" techniques as solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, noise, etc. when used against Americans. A definition of torture that is dependent on the target rather than the action is meaningless.

Torture Works?
If torture works, then the confessions of Americans captured by the North Koreans and the Vietnamese were not false, not coerced. They were true. After all, torture works.

Women in Salem, submitted as I recall to "mild" techniques such as multiple pin pricks, confessed to consorting with the devil. I suppose there may be some Christians believe this to be possible, but I suspect that most of us would conclude that these women were not telling the truth.

Legal Opinions
If all it takes is a legal opinion to sanction torture, then perhaps the Allied Forces owe the lawyers and judges convicted at Nüremberg pardons. After all, they were not relying on legal "opinions". They were enforcing the laws, the laws mind you, of a legally elected government.

Enemy Combatants
I loathe this term. Like the redefinition of what constitutes torture, it's only purpose is to remove those captured from the protections they would have as prisoners of war.

It is my understanding that most of the people at Guantanamo were captured on battlefields. We invaded Afghanistan. It doesn't matter whether that invasion was justified or not. Don't the residents of Afghanistan have a right to defend their country? Does that right disappear because they don't wear military uniforms? If that's the case, the British were justified in torturing the American rabble who had the nerve to rebel against the King.

The Definition of Torture

Under the Bush definition that anything short of organ failure isn't torture, where does that leave us?

It means it is legal to batter, break bones, use electric shocks against genitals, rape with or without physical instruments, pull out fingernails and toenails, burn the skin with cigarettes, etc. What would the U.S. government do if a foreign country used any of these techniques against an American found illegally in that country and believed to be engaged in activities which would result in the loss of life? Would we say "fine, as long as there is no organ failure or death"?

The Innocent
Hundreds of Guantanamo detainees were released by the Bush Administration because they were innocent. Think about that. They were imprisoned and subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" for years - and they were innocent.

Under torture, the guilty have choices. They can hold out until that mythical "ticking time bomb" goes off. They can issue repeated lies until that mythical "ticking time bomb" goes off. They can dribble out half-truths. They can tell the truth.

But the innocent have no choice but to lie, to create fantastical stories that will stop the pain because they have nothing to confess.

Given the numbers of prisoners released from Guantanamo, it would appear that our ability to accurately identify truly dangerous people is rather low.

I realize this doesn't matter to the supporters of torture. They operate under the 1% criterion. It's OK to torture 99 innocent people in order to get possibly useful information from one guilty person.

The torturers
Tell me, would you like to live next door to a person who spent his or her days torturing? Would you like your son or daughter to marry a person whose job is to torture? Would you feel comfortable having a torturer babysit your children? And, finally, what kind of people are capable of inflicting pain on another human being (OK, dentists and cancer specialists excepted) day in and day out? Would you want to be friends with them?

Am I nuts or shouldn't at least some of these questions be asked by the people who oppose torture?

American "Exceptionalism"

What is all comes down to, of course, on the part of those who approve of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (Newspeak of the highest order), is that Americans are different. Because we are "good", we can torture. Because our enemies are bad, they deserve to be tortured. Unfortunately, I don't know of any nation or group of people who can't defend torture on these very grounds.

p.s. Would somebody please send Lindsey Graham a copy of 1984?

p.p.s. If we put every American male over the age of 10 in jail we would probably reduce crime by what? 95%? Women and children could walk the streets in safety. Almost all physical abuse would end. So would most drug trade (yes women are users but most organized crime members are men). We wouldn't even have to torture them. Just hold them until they are too old to do any harm.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Really Big Feel Good Moment: Susan Boyle - I Dreamed A Dream

Well, thanks to Anderson 360 I discovered this video of Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent

47. Frumpy. The judges and audience expected the worst - and got a flawless, spectacular performance.

You Tube embedding isn't allowed. But listen. And listen.

Media Missing in Action: The 4/14/09 Tea Party

Just curious. What percent of the U.S. population understands why the Republicans are having a tea party*? My guess: probably about 10%

*The Boston Tea Party was one of the acts that led to the Revolutionary War. It was a protest against a tax on tea imposed by the British Parliament on a people, English citizens living in The New World, who had no representation in the Parliament.

Meida Missing in Action: Obama's 4/13/09 Economic Speech

Well, even CNBC's "reporters", based on their comments, apparently didn't bother to actually listen to Obama's speech although the network broadcast it live. I guess if you've read the written speech handed out beforehand, there's no point in actually listening.

Then there was the idiotic reporting on CNN: an interview with two people who had been laid off to get their reactions to the speech. The anchor was surprised that $25 more per week could make a difference to some people.

And, yet another of our illustrious "reporters", I think this was on MSNBC, was upset because "all" of the 2000 shovel-ready projects in progress involved small construction jobs which would last only a few months. So they weren't creating "real" jobs. As if a few months' work wouldn't make a difference to somebody whose income was 0. And, as if fixing potholes was not a "constructive" activity. (Don't any of these people ever ride in a car?) Ah, yes. I guess that's why 8.5% of the working population are unemployed. They must have had only temporary work, not real jobs, right?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Media Missing in Action: Presidential Press Conference Mar. 24, 2009

What did we learn from this press conference? That the members of our media become dumber and more out of touch with every passing year. Before long I suspect that prepubescent children could ask better questions.

It's not just the "gotcha" journalism to which we've been endlessly subjected for the past 20 or 30 years. It is the shear stupidity on display. And that was clear with the first question. The reporter wondered why, given the problems with AIG, the government wanted greater regularity authority. Doh? One could almost see Obama wondering if she were really that dumb or if it was simply a setup question so he could explain about the lack of current authority to wind down non-bank institutions.

I'd say more but, quite frankly, I'd have to watch the whole mess over again to isolate the one or two semi-reasonable questions that were asked and it, quite frankly, is not worth the time.

If you have not yet watched the press conference or have seen only TV excerpts, go to C-SPAN and watch the last 30 seconds or so. Obama's answer to the final dumb question tells you all you have to know about one of our biggest media problems: that they have the attention spans of infants.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Systemic Risk

It's obvious that Americans do not understand what is meant by systemic risk. Worse, I suspect that most of the members of the various House and Senate oversight committees do not understand it either.

Paulson, Geitner, Bernanke: they all understand it. But the knowledge is so complete, so innate, they simply do not realize that other people do NOT understand what they mean, how it is assessed, what the risks are. Or, perhaps, they know their Congressional overseers do not understand, but they haven't figured out how to explain it without showing that the emperor has no clothes (that a lot of those in Congress have not a clue.)

Worse, the ignorance related to this issue goes further. On Monday, Mar. 17, 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gretchen Morgenson said two truly idiotic things on Terry Gross's Fresh Air.

First, she couldn't understand why U.S. taxpayers should pay off foreign counterparties of AIG. Apparently the NYT's crackerjack financial reporter doesn't realize that our financial system does not stop at the country's border. We live in a worldwide financial market. Americans invest abroad. Foreigners invest here. The banks are actually rather tightly connected. Nor does it occur to her, apparently, that obligations (treaty, legal, etc.) also do not stop at the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Further, if there were no legal or self-interest reason for doing this (because massive bank failures in Europe would, and to some extent have, effect us), there would still be a moral obligation.

The worldwide financial crisis (not the recession which probably would have happened anyways) began in the U.S. with our sub-prime mortgages, our inadequate or non-existent, or lax regulatory systems, and our glorious "quants" who invented all these instruments that have come close to destroying not just our financial system but the world's. This mess was made in the U.S. and we have an obligation to help our partners while we help ourselves.

Second, she couldn't understand why the President couldn't just break the employment contracts at AIG because they're no different than the bankruptcy cramdown (allowing judges to force a write-down of first home mortgages in bankrupt proceedings).

Hmmmmm. The President can't do either. He hasn't the legal authority. As a matter of fact there has been enormous resistance in the Congress to the proposed bankruptcy cramdown bill (passed in the House but not, at this date, in the Senate) precisely because "contracts must be respected". Nobody in the Executive branch, including the President, has the authority to abrogate, willy nilly, any kind of contract between willing parties.

Barney Frank, to his credit, admits it is not a good idea for the Federal Government to get in the business of, through statutes, canceling contracts. And I, quite frankly, do not like the idea of using the IRS to punish people we think ought to be punished. No matter how such a law is written, I figure some innocents will be caught. And, again, if the Congress can do that in this case, where there is lots of public support, what if it did it for less universally approved reasons?

Frank thinks it makes more sense to exercise our rights as owners of AIG. I will note, however, that Liddy's lawyers told him that if they broke the contracts, the employees could sue, would probably win and it would end up costing even more. I'm not a lawyer. I have no idea if this is true. But the retention bonuses do seem to be issued on a "pay for performance" basis rather than a just "you're here" basis which makes them more rational than otherwise might be thought.

P.S. As I have said before, I am not an accountant, a lawyer, an auditor or a finanacial analyst. I do not work in the financial services industry. My opinions are based on a lot of reading and hundreds of hours of watching C-SPAN and my own commonsense.

These are not Bailouts; They are Loans or Purchases

We need different terminology. To me a "bailout" is a gift. I'm sunk in credit card debt, I go to my folks, ask them to bail me out. And they do. At no cost to me. That's a bailout.

That's not what we've done with any of these companies. We've loaned them money on which they must pay interest or dividends. The Fed has acquired assets, in lieu of cash, which they can sell later on when the markets have recovered. We acquired equity via preferred or common stock.

Whether or not you agree with the original decisions, we are now committed and our only objective should be to ensure that these investments, unlike those in our 401Ks, actually generate a profit or, at worst, make us whole some years down the road.

Please remember Chrysler way back when. That loan, too, was widely criticized, but Chrysler paid the load back early and in full and at a profit to the taxpayers. So it has been done before. Not on this scale, of course, but it can succeed.

AIG, Bailouts: Temper Tantrums vs. Commonsense

OK, I have had enough of these temper tantrums, these "cut your nose to spite you face" Congressional and public rampages.

There are two choices re AIG and the other bailouts. And both are nothing but bets.

1. Let all these companies (AIG, Citi, BofA, the auto companies, etc.) go bankrupt and just hope that the world doesn't collapse. You want to risk a global depression? A stock market down to 0? You think these are exaggerations? If the financial world collapses, not even the full faith and credit of the U.S. is likely to save you. If you're right and I'm wrong, well, you can say "I told you so".

This is what can also be thought of as one side of the "sunk cost" decision. Yes, we've invested multi billions of dollars but that's no reason to send good billions after bad billions.

2. Monitor, regulate, exercise strong oversight and help all of these companies to recover. The consequences? The economy improves and all the taxpayers get paid back. It's possible that one or more of these companies will fail no matter what we do but, at a minimum, the money we've invested will have given us the time to wind them down in a more orderly fashion. Will this take time? Yes. The economy isn't going to recover tomorrow and none of these companies can fully recover until the economy does. But only children should expect things to happen tomorrow. So what if it takes 4 or 5 or 6 years to full unwind everything? In the history of the country, that's about the length of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War or WWII. And it's a lot shorter period than the Great Depression.

This is partly much the other side of the "sunk cost" assessment: I've already put so much money into this hole, I might as well keep going and hope for the best.

Me, I'm the cautious and optimistic sort. I prefer choice #2.

Media Missing in Action: AIG Bonuses and Loans

OK, Liddy's 3/18/09 testimony has been illuminating - although many of the members of the committee don't seem to be listening.

The Bonuses

These are NOT performance bonuses. They are retention bonuses for people in AIG-FP, the source of most of the problems. The purpose of the bonuses was to pay people to stay until they had wound down their positions. The people who have left, who signed the contracts in Jan. 2008, left because they had wound down the positions they were expected to wind down. And they got their retention bonuses because they had fulfilled their contractual obligations. Those still working are being paid their retention bonuses because they have not yet wound down their positions but are still working to do so.

This division had, at the start of 2008, as I understand it, 2.3 trillion in notational value of positions. Today, 50% has been wound down - so now it's about 1.2 trillion. In short, progress has been made. Each contract is complex and, sad to say, the people who made the contracts probably know more about how to wind them down than somebody new. Think about the effort requried for a new employee, from outside the company, to replace you in your job.

What Liddy feared is that if he failed to pay the retention bonuses, the people required to wind down their positions would simply have walked out the door. And these are positions that must be managed daily. Given the 50% decrease in the value of these positions since Liddy took over, they seem to be doing their jobs.

If you've ever been employed by a company that went bankrupt or was acquired by another company (as I have), you know that people are still needed to wind down the company: to fire employees, to work with the acquiring company to integrate systems, etc. - people who know they will lose their jobs when the integration is completed or everything has been sold (think about Circuit City employees who stuck around to sell every last item they could before they, too, lost their jobs). A bonus can keep them from walking out the door and making the bankruptcy or acquisition that much more difficult.

Yes, the dollar amounts are huge, but so are the salaries at companies like AIG. All you free-marketers out there, all you wealth-defenders out there, shouldn't be upset about the size of the bonuses.

To say that the American taxpayers have loaned the company 170 billion dollars misstates the case. AIG owes the Fed and the Treasury about 80 billion dollars. There is, I think I heard, a 30 billion dollar line of credit that has not yet been tapped. The rest consists of assets separated off into something called Maiden Lane 2 and 3 which are now assets on the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. These assets were bought for 30-40 cents on the dollar. Today, according to Liddy, their market value ranges from about 30 cents to 75 cents on the dollar. They are all performing assets. When the market improves, the Fed will sell these assets and the money will be repaid. If I understand this correctly, it is the equivalent of my accepting your house in payment of a debt. I pay you less than it is worth based on the conviction that, since I am rich enough to just hold it (and rent it out to cover ongoing expenses), I will be able to sell it some years in the future and make a nice profit.

All of this seems rather reasonable, if unpalatable, to me. But neither the media nor a lot of people on the committee grilling Mr. Liddy (all of whom precede their often vicious attacks with statements of praise for taking on a thankless job for $1/year and no stock options) do not seem to have either heard or understood Mr. Liddy's explanations.

In short, as far as I can tell from Mr. Liddy's statements, the company has made significant progress in winding itself down - in such a way so as not to create financial chaos.

The AIG mess should not have occurred in the first place, but one plays the cards one has to the best of one's ability. And I think that Liddy has done that.

Kanjorski's AIG Hearing - Mar. 18, 2009

I've been watching these financial hearings for months and have concluded that Rep. Bachus, while perhaps the quintessential Southern gentleman, understands banking and finance no more than I do. But I was impressed by his opening statement for its lucid commonsense assessment of the issue (AIG's bailout and bonus payment) at a time when the media, the talk shows, the web, and, above all, Congress, has been whipping up hysteria equivalent to that which usually precedes a country's going to war.

And if Hypocrisy has a pantheon of heroes, surely Congress must rank at the top. I haven't done a count, but I suspect that many of the Representatives and Senators who opposed the bankruptcy cramdown for first-home mortgages (allowing, for the first time, a bankruptcy judge to write down the principal) on the grounds that mortgages were sacred contracts now consider contracts to be in, I think, Ackerman's words, "legal technicalities".

And, from the part of the hearing I've seen, I was more than a little bemused to see a Republican ask the GAO to investigate the conference committee hearing on the stimulus package which specifically exempted employment contracts from being abrogated. He apparently is unaware of the separation of powers. Or perhaps he thinks the executive branch should routinely investigate Congressional hearings and deliberations.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer: Takedown Part II

The Daily Show's Mar. 4, 2009 takedown of CNBC was brilliant, biting, and funny.

Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer on Mar. 12, 2009 was one of the most serious and substantive analysis (if not the most) of the purpose of the CNBC network that I have ever seen.

Jim Cramer was way, way, way out of his league.
Jim Cramer Extended Interview

First, Cramer assumed that he was the only target. Second, he completely failed to understand Stewart's fundamental issue: that CNBC was not giving value to the people who invest in pension funds and 401Ks, that it was, rather, a shill for Wall Street. Worse, it misrepresents itself as being for the former. Cramer simply did not get it.

This was a serious and often uncomfortable interview by Stewart, but it showed just how feckless the MSM (and the blogosphere for that matter) has been when it comes to business reporting.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tracking the TARP: How Practical?

Since everybody in the media and in Washington wants to know where the TARP money went, I've been thinking about the mechanics. (Please note: I'm not an accountant or an auditor and, although I am an IT person, I don't know how bank systems are designed.)

As I believe the CEO of BofA told one committee, the government's money doesn't get a color-code. And some in Congress do recognize that money is fungible. This, however, only makes them angrier (as if being angry would make money less fungible or more trackable).

So, anyways, in this thought experiment, let's start on the input side. I assume it is easy to set up a new account called "TARP" and, for all I know, that is what the banks have done. It's the output side that is the problem.

I suppose one could tag the TARP money, but that would mean changing who knows how many computer systems in these banks. It would probably take years and cost a bundle. Not a realistic idea. And this is why, I assume, it is so hard for Treasury or anybody to answer the question of "where did the TARP money go?"

But let's take a very simple, and unrealistic, system. One input account labeled "TARP". All the hundreds or thousands of loan officers in all the branches of these banks are given access to this account. (Practically speaking, programmers would have to add all the controls needed to assure only authorized access and limits and to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. Naturally, the implementation of even this simplified system would take at least months - but for this thought experiment we will ignore this little problem.)

So, what do the loan officers do next? Well, given the mood in Washington and the country, they will be told to make all their loans from this one pot until they have reached their limit. Wonderful. Now we know where the TARP money went. Problem solved.

No, it isn't. Why? Because TARP was supposed to make it possible for banks to lend more than they would have lent without it. But in this very simple case, all we know is that the TARP money was spent. Had it not existed, the banks might have made all of those loans from their own non-TARP money. We would have no way of knowing if that was true or not.

What we need to know and why it's not easy to find out
Basically, we really want to know two things. First, who got the loans. Second, did the bank's lending increase over what it would have been otherwise.

We could answer the first question in my simple system. But I suspect that answering it in the real world is imposssible because of the complexity of the systems involved. (See Input and Output above.)

What about the second question? Well, one could compare loans this year to loans last year and if more are made now than before, we could assume that TARP was the cause.

Not so fast. We're in a major recession. For 4 months in a row, over 600,000 jobs have been lost. (There have been only 10 such months since records began.) An enormous amount of wealth has disappeared (predominantly in homes and 401Ks). People are saving, not spending. And they are not borrowing either. So, total loans could still be down this year - because people are not borrowing or because the borrowers are no longer credit-worthy - even though the TARP money is letting banks make more loans than they would have made otherwise. That is to say, one can't reach any conclusion about whether or not more loans have been made simply by comparing loan rates or amounts because the recession muddies the waters.

No doubt there are ways to track the TARP money (to some degree) that do not require a massive redesign of computer systems and that can take into account reduced borrowing, but I suspect they are not easy to implement and will, therefore, take time to develop and put in place.

Unfortunately, complexity is not something the media or Washington understands.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TARP and the Congress: Neel Kashkari vs. Dennis Kucinich

Well, Mr. Kashkari underwent another multi-hour grilling by, this time, Kucinich's Oversight Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, and one wonders why he has chosen to subject himself to this continuing abuse.

The more I watch committee hearings on C-SPAN, the more I wonder how our country has survived. Although there are some smart people in the Congress, the number of idiots and ideologues (sometimes the same, sometimes not) surely exceeds their presence in the population (I hope).

First, Mr. Kashkari must deal with the incredible ignorance of the people who are questioning him. They know next to nothing about banking, about finance, about economics in general.

Second, they are like children who want their candy NOW! The stimulus package, passed less than a month ago hasn't worked yet! (The money has only started to trickle out the door). The 1/2 of the TARP given to the banks in the Fall hasn't stopped the recession. (Note: that wasn't its job. Its primary purpose was to stabilize the financial system.) And they don't understand that our financial institutions are in a precarious balancing act: they want to lend but they also have to maintain their capital levels (Tier 1 and, now, TCE)to avoid going bankrupt. Doesn't matter to these financial geniuses. The banks are supposed to do both.

Third, some are still angry because Treasury injected capital rather than bought up the bad assets - no matter that multiple people from the FED, FDIC and Treasury have explained what happened on multiple occasions. They still don't realize that buying up those assets has turned into a hugely complex problem - and Treasury, to its credit, realized it had to do something fast, something specifically authorized by the legislation (capital injection).

Fourth, he is constantly required to respond to conflicting ideological demands between the "free market over everything" and the "throw the bums out" groups.

Fifth, they don't understand that these multinational banks have customers and businesses around the world. They want the TARP money to be used "only" in the U.S. A few recognize that money is fungible, but still want to control how the banks conduct their business.

One of the dumbest questions/ideas came from Issa who thought it would have made more sense for the government to just buy up/renegotiate all the bad mortgages. It didn't occur to this doofus (although Kashkari did his best to gently point it out) that the government would have to hire thousands of employees who knew something about mortgages and those people would have to come from the very industries under scrutiny. Amazing, isn't it? Issa, foe of all government, convinced that the federal bureaucracy is the devil, thinks that same government should have gotten into the mortgage modification business down at the individual level.

The biggest complainer was Kucinich, appalled by the lack of oversight on how the money is being spent. Sure, it could probably be better. But since Sept., a new Administration has taken office, the economy has gone into a tailspin, banks are failing weekly, and the stock market may be headed toward 5000. You'd think it would have occurred to Kucinich that, just maybe, the Treasury has a lot on its plate and expecting penny-by-penny accounting of the money would be impossible under the best of circumstances and impossible given the speed with which the economy has deteriorated.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Media Missing in Action: Small Business and Obama's Awful Tax Increase

Well, Republicans have been screaming for days about how Obama's tax increase on those earning over $250,000 will kill small business.

It turns out that only 3% of the small businesses in this country would be affected. (Thank you Peter Orszag for this rather important fact that none of our useless media ever bothered to ferret out.)

When faced with that fact, a Republican changed tactics. Yes, that's true. But that 3% employs 50+% of all small business employees. So?

And, remember, we're talking about turning back the top marginal tax rate to where it was in 2000. Less than a 4% increase.

But we are supposed to believe that a 4% tax increase on 3% of the small businesses in this country will cause these business people to ... what? Shut down their businesses? No, I don't think so. Refuse to expand or hire new employees? That's kind of hard to see, too. Don't most businesses expand when there is increased demand for their products? So unless a tax increase is confiscatory - costs the company more than it can earn through expansion - I find it truly difficult to imagine this outcome either. (Any of you small business people earning more than $250,000, please let me know if I am wrong.)

This reminds me of an argument that I haven't heard in a couple of decades:that the progressive income tax on individuals will cause them not to seek promotions. Because promotions come with salary increases, usually, and some salary increases come with increased taxes. Now, I have never known anybody to turn down a promotion because of an associated tax increase. Again, if the increase totally wipes out the salary increase, I suppose a person might refuse the promotion - but being primates, I suspect most of us would still go for the promotion.