Friday, July 27, 2007

"Angler" Opera

Talk of the Town (The New Yorker - July 9):
It took thirty years for “Frost / Nixon” to reach Broadway. Assuming that civilization survives and the Great White Way remains above water, we can expect “Cheney / Bush” to mount the boards sometime in the late twenty-thirties or early twenty-forties.
And what would the libretto look like? Relying on recent in-depth investigative reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and New Yorker --
it is now, so to speak, official: for the past six years, Dick Cheney, the occupant of what John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived,” has been the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign.

He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable “war on terror.”
* * *
More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.
* * *
On Cheney’s version of the government organization chart, it seems, the location of the Office of the Vice-President is undisclosed. So are the powers that, in a kind of rolling, slow-motion coup d’état, he has gathered unto himself. The laughter will fade quickly; the current Administration, regrettably, will not. However more politically moribund it may become, its writ still has a year and a half to go. A few weeks ago, on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, the Vice-President issued threats of war with Iran. A “senior American diplomat” told the Times that Cheney’s speech had not been circulated broadly in the government before it was delivered, adding, “He kind of runs by his own rules.” But, too often, his rules rule. The awful climax of “Cheney/Bush” may be yet to come.

Well, okay! Now we have the libretto. All we need, now, is someone to set that to music.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter for Adults

Blog treasure Jon Swift on how Harry Potter is making the world less safe for the Unitary Executive:
Although some admirers have pointed out that the Harry Potter books have gotten kids reading again, this has come at the expense of taking them away from more important pursuits like playing video games which prepare them for the 21st century wars they will be fighting. Reading books, as many Americans are coming to discover, is overrated anyway, but reading these books (which for many Americans are the only books they do read) could be especially detrimental because of the lessons they are teaching our children and even many adults.

Harry Potter is a terrible role model. He is a petulant, self-pitying brat who routinely breaks rules that he believes don't apply to him. In the anything goes, slippery slope morality of Harry Potter's world, nothing is taboo... .
Although President Bush has stood as a bulwark against indulging children with medical care they cannot afford to pay for, for example, the insidious influence of British socialist propaganda like the Harry Potter books will not make this task any easier.
* * *
If J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, had been an American we wouldn't even have been subjected to these terrible books. She was a single mother who leached off the government dole for years while she scribbled away on the first book, daydreaming in Edinburgh cafés about Horcruxes and Patronus charms and other childish things instead of worrying about paying her bills. If she had lived in the United States she would have been forced to get a proper job and had no time to write at all. A self-professed admirer of Jessica Mitford, a muckraking journalist who was a member of the Communist Party, Rowling has filled her books with subversive propaganda... .

"In typical children's literature, only "bad kids" disobey adults, and they get hurt or into severe trouble," wrote liberal Mike Hersh. "Heroes seldom question authority, and if they do, they quickly learn their folly. Not in Rowling's realistic view. Her heroes repeatedly defy adults, break rules, and exemplify bold courage in the face of oppressive authority." Harry Potter and his friends are the kinds of kids who would stand outside of Hogwarts with a sign saying "Bong Hits for Jesus," which, thanks to our new Supreme Court, can no longer happen in America.
There's more.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

American Pathetic

The bad news is "American Inventor" is over for Pensacola Beach resident Carlos Patrick Reid. The good news is we won't feel obligated to watch this idiotic television show any more.

Never, ever again. Having watched two installments, it's time for us to take up a book and feel clean again.

As we look back on our two adventures with what passes for "reality TV" we can see, now, that Pensacola Beach favorite Carlos Patrick Reid never really had a chance. He just wasn't pathological or pathetic enough to win. His family didn't look like the four o'clock meds line up on a mental ward.

Before offering a much-too-kind rundown of last night's invention offerings, From Inside the Box has this acute observation:
Once again, the folks producing and editing this show love [the] sensitive tearjerking moment. You could just imagine how thrilled the production folks must have been when they saw a hardened police officer's lower lip trembling as he described how colleagues of his had died, and how his invention may be able to save others in the future. And oh, what glee them must have felt when judge Sarah Blakely started getting weepy at the thought of a deaf boy's struggle to be understood. They even started playing Superman (It's Not Easy), ferchrissakes. Oy.
Not to mention the poor schlub who took his retirement savings from a lifetime in the military and sunk it into a "54-piece cake cutter." His options are narrowing, fast. Maybe the Army recruiters for Iraq cannon fodder have something to offer him.

We hear there is another television program out there somewhere that asks "Are You As Smart As a Fifth Grader?" or something to that effect. The answer, apparently, is no. We aren't. Otherwise, American Inventor couldn't trade on whatever self-debasing urge it is that drives people to appear on programs like that -- or people like us to watch them.

Patrick will be fine, by the way. We understand from well-placed sources that another invention of his is well on its way to market and more are in later stages of development.

Perhaps the experience also has inspired him to invent something new, something really useful. Something that no American home should be without -- say, a voice-activated remote control that turns off the tube every time a viewer says, "What a load of crap this is."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

American Inventor Redux

Carolos Patrick Reid's family, friends, and neighbors again will be gathering tonight on Pensacola Beach tonight to watch the Tampa regional finals of ABC's American Inventor. Beach people have to stick together, so we'll be watching, too.

But the local bookies aren't encouraging about Patrick's chances. His idea for "Reid Rebuilding Blocks" is just too good, they say. In keeping with the custom of television reality shows, ABC seems to think it needs characters from Screwball City to appeal to the "average American" -- or at least the average American television viewer.

Someone, maybe, like 80 year-old Furney (or maybe it's Bernie) Eubanks and his pivoting lawn mower. As one viewer sees it, he's nothing but a "horny grandpa" with a "crazy laugh."

Maybe so. But we never bet against the bad judgment of the people in charge of commercial TV.

Monday, July 16, 2007

'Forbidden City' Starbucks Closes

Starbucks closed its controversial Chinese coffee house last Friday, seven years after it opened inside the Imperial Palace in Beijing.

It was a small outlet, as we discovered a year ago last Spring, located in a rather drab corner of the Imperial Palace grounds. The coffee company has more than two hundred more scattered around China. The others, from what we have seen, are far more comfortably appointed.

Still, for some leaving the Imperial City can be a life-changing experience. Just ask P'u Yi.

All manner of garbled explanations have been appearing in the American press, but the People's Daily seems to have the straight scoop.
The Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City downed its shutters on Friday after months of online protests by millions of people, saying its presence undermined the solemnity of the former imperial palace and trampled over Chinese culture.

The move follows the Forbidden City management's decision to allow shops to operate only under its brand name.
* * *
Vice-president of the palace management board Li Wenru said Starbucks was offered the option of operating under the Palace Museum brand name like the other outlets.

But Starbucks' Vice-President for Greater China Eden Woon didn't agree to that. Beijing Youth Daily quoted him as saying: "It is not our custom to have stores that have any other name, therefore we decided the choice would be to leave."

The outlet was opened in 2000, and the rent it paid was used for maintenance work. But this January, China Central Television (CCTV) anchorman Rui Chenggang initiated an online protest saying the coffee shop was ruining Chinese culture. Millions of people supported him.

Starbucks, however, denied any link between the protest and the closure. "It (the closure) is just out of respect for the palace's decision," Starbucks spokesman Sun Kejiang said.
The BBC adds this:
The palace is undergoing restoration that includes toning down the commercial aspect. The number of shops has already more than halved.
It is disconcerting to some visitors, and we were among them, to turn a corner in the Imperial City and come face to face with garish advertisements or signs hawking the wares of global commerce. Just imagine, if you can, the golden arches framing the Lincoln Memorial.

It'll happen some day. Bet on it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Florida's Loose Connections

Florida often has a lot of odd, loose connections to weird stuff that pops up in national politics. Ya think it might be because we have a lot of weird, loosely-wrapped people living around here?

* * *
The first loose connection to be unraveled involves the goose extermination at Tiger Point Golf Course. The Ft. Walton Beach Daily News ran an article yesterday about the sudden disappearance-by-death of more than fifty geese at the local golf course in Gulf Breeze.

Among those applauding the slaughter? None other than Grant Hibbard. He's quoted as saying:
“I think there were probably a few people upset about it. Not the Hibbards. They came into my back yard and crapped all over the place. And they crapped all over the golf course.”
Not mentioned in the piece is that this is the same nationally-famous Grant 'Skip' Hibbard who helped the Swift-Boat liars trash John Kerry's war record back during the 2004 presidential campaign. As Media Matters reported back then about the Swift Boat attack --
"A review by the Globe of Kerry's [actual] war record ... found that the young Navy officer [Kerry] acted heroically under fire, in one case saving the life of an Army lieutenant."
We always thought trashing a war hero was an odd way for a Navy veteran to "support the troops." A reader who saw the Daily News article wrote in today to ask, "Wonder what it is that makes right-wingers like Hibbard want to kill things?"

Who knows? Sounds like he may suffer from a "severe handicap." We just can't recall if that's a golfing expression for poor putters or a term of art from the world of abnormal psyche.

* * *
Speaking of golfers, the New Orleans Times Picayune has been digging into the past associations of U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA). Vitter, of course, is now world famous for three things: (1) being Southern Regional chair of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign; (2) campaign ads that portray him "as a solid family-values sort of fellow" and defender of "traditional marriage against its assorted enemies;" and (3) being a chronic, long-time patron of prostitutes.

It turns out one of Vitter's favorite floozies, former Big Easy prostitute Wendy Yow Cortez, spent considerable time getting intimate with both golfers and Florida. According to a former boyfriend:
"She told me she had clients lined up; high-dollar people, lawyers, politicians, golfers."
After the couple split up --
Records show Yow has moved often, with addresses in at least five states during the past decade, including Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and Iowa. She has used the last names of Yow, Cortez, Williams, Shackelford, Ellis, Scavone and Bruhn, among others, according to cross-referenced public records and interviews.

In 1995, she was arrested in Sanford, Fla., and charged as a felon fleeing from justice, and extradited to Arkansas, where she was wanted, according to police records.

A year later in Seminole County, Fla., she was booked with three counts of fraudulent use of credit cards. She was convicted and ordered to serve probation, but violated that sentence a few years later and was arrested again in 2001 in Longwood, Fla. Records show she served a jail sentence.
Bloggers: start your research engines. With such a lengthy sojourn in so many Florida communities, isn't it likely Ms. Yow was acquainted with a lot of other randy right-wing Republicans?

* * *
Florida state representative Bob Allen (R-Merritt Island) has obvious connections to Florida, of course. This could only have helped put him over the top for the coveted GOP Hypocrite of the Week Award.

Here, the national connection is to U.S. Senator John McCain's faltering presidential bid. Back in March, McCain chose Allen to be co-chairman of his Florida campaign. We can only imagine who Senator McCain might choose for presidential cabinet positions, in the unlikely event he finds the wherewithal to win the 2008 election.

Still, "innocent until proven guilty," you know. Jonathan Stein speculates on his Mother Jones blog that Allen may have some pretty interesting defenses to the criminal charge he faces of soliciting a (male) act of prostitution.
Allen recently introduced HB 1475 into the Florida state legislature, a bill called "Lewd or Lascivious Exhibition" that lays a mightier smackdown on offenders of Allen's stripe. (Question: Was he doing research?) And the Rainbow Democratic Club, a central Florida gay rights group, recently identified Allen as one of the region's most hostile legislators towards gays. (Opposition research, then?)
So, we ask you: just take a look at this guy (left). Is that the face of some hypocritical sexual deviate or the inspiring visage of a modern-day Republican conservative doing field research to better protect the family values of all us citizens?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

'Inventor' Suspense Show

For Pensacola Beach residents, last night's installment of ABC's American Inventor reality show was unexpectedly suspenseful. Scores of Carlos Patrick Reid's family, friends, and supporters were kept on the very edge of their seats nearly the entire hour.

The drama wasn't in whether Patrick would make it through the Tampa regional finals with his "Reid rebuilding blocks" idea for hurricane-proof housing. It was whether local WEAR-TV (Channel 3) would show anything of Patrick's presentation at all.

It seems a small summer storm front was passing over southeastern Alabama -- big surprise, there -- and WEAR's weather man, Alan Strum, thought it so exceptional he interrupted the program (but never the commercials) three or four times to extemporize about it. He clumsily played with his computer, zoomed in and out with graphics that smothered the entire home TV screen, and endlessly -- endlessly! -- repeated himself.

How many ways can you say "there might be a short, sharp rainstorm coming"? Alan Strum invented at least a couple dozen. Each was identical to the others except for the stammering, hemming, and hawing.

It got so bad, so we hear, that a friend of Reid's called the wife of the station manager at home to complain.

Perhaps thanks to that call, or to the fact that the storm quickly dissipated, Strum was silenced just before Patrick made his climactic and convincing inventor's pitch near the end of the hour. Given the predominantly negative reviews American Inventor has gotten since its inception (the "worst unscripted outing to hit the airwaves in many a moon," according to the Chicago Tribune), producer Simon Cowell might want to consider using Alan Strum to inject more weather hysteria into every show.

As Matthew Gilbert observed in the Boston Globe when "American Inventor" first hit the airwaves, "the show is modeled -- sometimes too closely -- after ''American Idol." But --
The series also tries to make itself into something of a national savior. As judge and inventor Doug Hall tells us, "We've got to reignite the spirit of invention in America. If we don't, in five years we're all going to be working for the folks in India and China."
A noble ambition. But as Gilbert also pointed out, the reality of American Inventor seems quite different:
[W]ade through the exaggeration, and you'll find a ''Bladder Buddy" enabling men and women to urinate in public, a ''Space-Beetle Utopia" for pet insects, and edible-snow-globe cookie kits presented by a woman who looks and sings like Dolly Parton. These and the many other groovy notions are the show's real stars, even if they're nothing compared to the sheer genius of ''Cheese Go-Rounds."
Last night, instead of a bladder buddy we saw such goofy ideas (in between endless commercials and weather alerts) as a doggie bath tub that looks like nothing more than a Rubbermaid box with scissored holes for pooch's head and tail; a 'tongue brush' for teeth; and a 'mammary mattress' for victims of breast augmentation. There was worse on offer, too, including an idea for a skin rec0loring pill pitched by a fellow who must have been on a 6-hour pass from the funny farm.

Against that kind of competition, Patrick Reid's idea for lego-style building blocks made of composite plastics looked positively genius. Seth Plattner, who live-blogs American Inventor and has to know a whole more about such things than we do, agrees. He writes:
This might be the most planning we've seen behind an invention, and these plastic building blocks--like big legos--are pretty amazing. Because you can cover the blocks with siding and what not, it make sense because it won't be aesthetically displeasing. And more than that it will be cheap and might even revolutionize making housing communities for those who can't necessarily afford it. And man is he tugging on my heart strings! Peter really had no choice but to give him a chance, right?
So, our own inventive idol, Carlos Patrick Reid, easily won approval from the four "judges" and will go on to the next round. The only downer is that his idea not only was best in show -- it really is a terrific idea on its own merits. He could have beat much stiffer competition, had there been any.

Commercial television defiles nearly everything it touches. Baseball (the designated hitter rule), football (TV timeouts), basketball (the shot clock), news (Brit Hume), and representative democracy (George Bush's election in 2000), to name just a few examples. So as we watched American Inventor last night we shouldn't have been surprised to discover that too many times by giving air time to so many crackpots the show actually demeaned, rather than exalted, the inventive spirit.

Patrick is no crackpot. His "rebuilding blocks" may have to surmount some challenging patent law and marketing hurdles, but it's a sound idea with potentially wide application that could bring relief to tens of millions of hurricane, flood, and fire victims. If American Inventor does nothing more than help bring this one inspired idea to fruition, it will have performed a genuine public service that the entire television industry can be proud of.

We'll be tuning in to coming installments of American Inventor. Next time, we hope the local weatherman does, too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pensacola Beach 'Mogul' on 'American Inventor' Tonight

Pensacola Beach resident Carlos Patrick Reid -- better known as "Patrick" to his friends -- can be seen tonight on ABC-TV's "American Inventor" reality show. He's one of the finalist "inventors" competing in the TV network's Tampa regional run-off.

We understand ABC camera crews were here a short time ago to film some background material on Patrick and his family.

This is an exciting opportunity not only for Patrick but for millions of others who live along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. Patrick has invented "a revolutionary method of building inexpensive, indestructible homes" using feather-weight blocks of amazingly strong composite material.

The network promo for tonight's show teases his invention idea pretty well. Unfortunately, it also contains a bit of silliness. Based merely on having an interest in a small rental property as well as his family's beach condo, ABC-TV refers to Patrick as a "real estate mogul." Take a look at the boldface, below:
Wednesday, July 11 at 9/8c"Episode 205"

The nationwide search for America's next big invention continues with open casting calls in Houston and Tampa. Highlights include a device designed to help busty women and a real estate mogul -- inspired by the Hurricane Katrina tragedy -- giving an emotional pitch for a revolutionary method of building inexpensive, indestructible homes.
We beach people know who the actual "real estate moguls" are on Pensacola Beach. To his credit, Patrick isn't one of them. He's too nice a guy, and wants to help other people too much, to qualify as a "mogul" around here.

Here's hoping Patrick wins the Tampa regional and parlays the $50,000 'development' award prize into a terrific product for coastal dwellers everywhere.

If you have access to ABC-TV, tune in tonight to American Inventor to find out how you can vote for Carlos Patrick Reid. If you threw your TV out the window after one or another Fox News outrage -- not to worry. Invention hound Seth Plattner will be live-blogging the show, too.

Sand In Your Eyes

Dick Cheney's puppet once again is struggling to throw the same old sand in the eyes of Americans.

The headline: The quote:
"Al Qaida is doing most of the spectacular bombings, trying to incite sectarian violence," Bush told a business group in Cleveland, Ohio. "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is a crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims."
The reality:

Al Qaida in Iraq didn't emerge until 2004. While it is inspired by Osama bin Laden's violent ideology, there's no evidence that the Iraq organization is under the control of the terrorist leader or his top aides, who are believed to be hiding in tribal regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

Moreover, the two groups have been divided over tactics and strategy.

He's very stupid or he thinks we are. Either way, it explains why Bush's approval rating is now hovering around 29 points, about the IQ level of Charlie McCarthy.

"Sicko" For What Ails Us

Sicko opens in Pensacola this coming Friday, according to one local radio report we've heard. And it's coming soon to Gulf Breeze Cinema 4, although theater manager Neal Winkler isn't sure just when. It seems Michael Moore's latest documentary is such a box-office smash that the bigger theaters are getting first call on all the prints.

Meanwhile, nearly the whole of the Internet is buzzing about director Michael Moore's entertaining slap-down of CNN's Wolf Blitzer here (Part 1) and here (part 2) and his web reply to CNN's embedded sawbones, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Yet, almost surely the most detailed and knowledgeable review of the substance of Michael Moore's new documentary -- and, beyond that, of the troubled U.S. health care system and its many betters elsewhere in the world -- was broadcast earlier this week on WHYY-FM's "Fresh Air." Radio still does it better.


If they gave awards for the best interview on radio or TV, this one would win a Pulitzer. Everyone who wants to have a say in any future discussion about the U.S. health care system should give it a thorough listen.

Turn on your speakers, sit back, and click this link to hear the superb 41-minute interview conducted by Terry Gross of University of North Carolina's School of Medicinesocial medicine professor Jonathan Oberlander.

What did you think of Michael Moore's 'Sicko'? Terry asks early on. Prof. Oberlander answers, "He gets a lot right about the American health care system and really shows how the system doesn't work. He cuts a few corners and leaves a few things out which admittedly are hard to get in, in a two hour format."


There's more to the interview, a lot more. And that's the point. More about the Canadian system, the French system, the German system, and the Australian system; as well as a lot more detail about our own systemic health care ills. Every one of these nations, Oberlander says, "rations" health care in one way or another -- including us.

"We in the United States don't like to think that we ration health care, we pretend we don't ration." We indulge in the fantasy that the others have embraced "socialized medicine" -- a "meaningless" but politically powerful phrase, Oberlander says.

"But the truth of the matter is that we... ration medical care, too. We ration it according to your insurance status." That form of rationing, Oberlander adds, "is much more severe than any Canadian rationing."


If we ever grow serious about reforming the U.S. health care mess, the clear-eyed Oberlander says we needn't look far for a model to emulate: our own Medicare system. It works well. It has achieved much lower administrative costs than is achievable in the corporate-profits -obsessed private insurance industry. And, it has demonstrated over more than forty years an effective approach to universal eligibility that could be easily expanded to include everyone regardless of age.

However, because of what the professor delicately terms "political barriers" in the U.S., it seems unlikely any future Congress or president will achieve universal health care solely through expanding Medicare. This is because the real difficulty in reforming medical care in the U.S. is political, rather than medical or administrative or even economic.

As Oberlander describes Sicko:
One of the more amusing and also poignant scenes in the movie is where different members of Congress are walking into a room and Michael Moore puts price tags above their heads. The fact of the matter is the way we finance elections in this country allows the pharmaceutical industry and the health insurance industry and a whole lot of other health care interests to fund campaigns. They can put a lot of money in those campaigns and put a lot of money into political parties. And once you've given that money the question is, "What are you buying for that money?" And, I think it makes sense to assume in many cases that they are buying a sense of political obligation and a sense from those members of Congress that take the money that they're not going to rock the boat, they're not going to upset the status quo.
As for the American Medical Association, Oberlander tells Terry Gross, "organized medicine for most of the twentieth century was the number one opposition to national health insurance." They opposed not only universal health care, but also Medicare, Medicaid, and prenatal care and medical care for children programs.

These days the AMA has softened -- ever so slightly -- but it's no longer very organized, Oberlander says. It represents "only around forty percent of physicians. The result is the AMA doesn't really speak for all, or even most, American physicians any more."

Still, the AMA, too, remains a powerful special interest well-positioned to buy its share of politicians. Currently, the AMA is on record as favoring what Oberlander describes as an "incremental agenda" for expanding medical care. Better than outright opposition, perhaps, but --
one gets the sense that they are much more deeply involved in complaints over medical malpractice and fights over what Medicare is paying physicians than they are in advocating for the uninsured. If they would advocate for the uninsured with the same intensity that they advocate for medical malpractice reform we might actually be able to break the impasse."

Prof. Oberlander says that Moore's film effectively contrasts the over-priced, inefficient, and inadequate U.S. health care system with the foreign systems in Canada, France, Great Britain, and Cuba which he, too, has studied. But if we are someday to look overseas for models to be adapted here at home, he suggests U.S. corporate interests should find some more politically palatable than others. Those that retain a measure of the "status quo" for privately owned health insurance companies are least threatening, and therefore have the greater chance of gaining political favor.

Given the political reality that we citizens routinely reelect congressmen and senators who have already sold their souls to the 2-trillion-dollar-a-year health insurance industry, Oberlander says if Michael Moore ever makes a "Sicko II," he'd like to send him to Germany and Australia. Every nation's health care system is to some degree fashioned by its own history. But these two countries "do use private health insurance in their universal coverage systems" and their systems "are employment-based." Given the degraded politics of contemporary America, "if we're really going to get universal coverage... probably we're going to continue to have a mixed system" of private and public health insurance, Oberland concludes.

In Germany the insurance companies "are non-profit" and "highly regulated." They are forbidden from charging "sick people more." Insurance is tied to employment, but for the unemployed the government helps "buy" them into the system. In Australia, a "mixed system" of private and government insurance companies prevails. Everyone is entitled to basic health care, but the very rich remain free to buy additional private insurance.

To achieve universal health care in the U.S. under such a system, Oberland adds, the reforms would have to be "the kind of reforms Clinton wanted back in 1993. They're exactly the kind of reforms that we would have to have" if we went to a system like that in Australia.


A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute mentioned in the Oberlander interview found that under the present American health care system the U.S. expenditures for administrative and associated "intermediation" costs total $98 billion per year. Oberlander says Michael Moore's film, Sicko, offers excellent illustrations for what that "staggering" number means in every day life (or death) to real people.

Another study Oberlander mentions, which we surmise is the oft-cited 2004 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Woolhander, Campbell, and Himmelstein, found that 30 percent of all health care costs in the U.S. is spent on insurance company administrative expenses. Such expenses include the time, effort, and expense private insurance companies spend on "fighting" with customers who become sick, "figuring out how much they're going to charge people, figuring out how sick people are, figuring out whether they're going to insure them at all," and then marketing those policies.

It's all money that could, and should, go toward actual medical care. It's hideous to waste such vast sums.

In the health care systems of more advanced countries such expenses are dramatically lower. For example, the administrative costs of Canada's universal coverage system are "about 17%" of the total spent on delivering health care, or nearly half as much measured as a percentage of total health care expenditures.


The independent Portland Mercury sums up its review of Michael Moore's new movie, Sicko, this way:
He's recast the debate in terms we can all understand— explaining the problem as "[here is] what the greatest country ever in the history of the universe does to its own people, simply because they have the misfortune of getting sick."

But will Americans listen? And if they do, will they join Moore in demanding a solution?
We would sum up the Fresh Air interview with a familiar TV pharmaceutical sales pitch, not a question: Tell your physician, your health insurer, and most especially your congressman that you want some of that "solution" to cure what ails us.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All Saint Friedman's Day

It's been one Friedman unit since the Cheney Administration's "surge," so Atrios is celebrating the dons of Conventional Wisdom. Never silent, always wrong:

Staff Storm at Hurricane Center

After only six months on the job, National Hurricane Center director Bill Proenza effectively has been cashiered. Proenza came to the job after eight years as director of the Southern Region of the National Weather Service, which includes the Gulf Coast.

As the St. Pete Times reports:
Bill Proenza, the embattled director of the National Hurricane Center, was replaced suddenly Monday, four days after nearly half his staff called for his ouster.
* * *
"Proenza is on leave but is still a NOAA employee," said Anson Franklin, director of communications for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees the hurricane center.

The official tale is that Proenza's bosses in Washington at the Commerce Department, which include the National Weather Service, are merely responding to a revolt by "nearly half the staff of the National Hurricane Center" who issued "a statement calling for his immediate dismissal," according to the Miami Herald. Lower level staff, it's been widely reported, were most concerned that Proenza "had rankled his bosses with public criticisms of spending priorities," as the New York Times explains.

Two examples, cited in virtually all news reports, are Proenza's criticism early in his tenure of NOAA spending priorities and the concerns he expressed about Washington's delays in replacing a failing weather satellite. As the Palm Beach Post reported last month:
In May, Proenza told the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale that NOAA shouldn't be spending up to $4 million on its 200th anniversary at a time when it had cut $700,000 from hurricane research.
* * *
He also said the QuikSCAT satellite, which provides critical wind measurements, was designed to last up to five years but was now eight years old and could fail at any minute, while the government debates whether to replace it.

NOAA's defense was that it 'only' spent $1.5 million on the "birthday party" and that the QuikSCAT satellite wasn't the end-all in forecasting hurricane strength. Proenza's complaints, one of his Washington bosses said, risked "causing undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff."

Remember that phrase: "undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff."

Soon after Proenza's public remarks, NOAA began sending 'investigators' out from Washington to interview NHC's Miami staff; or to inspire a staff revolt -- take your pick. In an interview with the Miami Herald last week, Proenza "
blamed nearly all of the turmoil on the actions of his bosses, particularly the 'extraordinary disruption' caused by the inspection launched by five federal officials, including an attorney versed in personnel matters."
"That triggered a frenzy of concern [within his staff] about mission deliver and-or one's career," he said.

'I have employees tell me, 'Bill, I am so much for you and for what you've brought in. But I'm so afraid that if I'm viewed to be with you and you leave, then I'm viewed as being in the wrong camp,'" Proenza said.
It is rather striking that staff complaints about Proenza uttered this month almost exactly mirror the immediate push-back two months earlier by NOAA administrators when Proenza first shined a light on their million-dollar-plus "birthday party." Maybe it's coincidence. Or maybe it's circumstantial proof, if any were needed, that outside their narrow field of hurricane forecasting a lot of NHC staffers are naive and easily-manipulated.

Some suggestive evidence for the latter view can be gleaned from a transcript of a press conference three disgruntled NHC staff members gave on July 6. Here are some excerpts we found telling:
Senior Hurricane Specialist James Franklin
We have been a family here, we are a small group of about 50 people. * * * That takes a certain amount of teamwork and appreciation of sense of family and he's destroying that, he's destroying that.
* * *
We've see [sic] members of the Congress talking about how the information from the recognizance aircraft are inferior to QuikSCAT, we're afraid that somebody might get it in their heads to fund a stopgap QuikSCAT to take funds from recon aircraft. There is no comparison, there is not a forecaster here who believes QuikSCAT is more important than recon aircraft or other tools we have. But because this issue has been misreported we're afraid we might lose what we have.

* * *
Lixion Avila-Senior Hurricane Forecaster
He said that we don't want to work with him, because he brings many good ideas, and we don't want to do that. I want you to know that he has not made a hurricane forecast since 1964.
* * *
Vivian Jorge, Administrative Officer
Unfortunately I think a director needs to unite his staff and he needs to be a calming person. It doesn't need to be a no new ideas.
With staff insisting "it doesn't need... no new ideas" it's hard to believe disagreements over the science lie at the root of the staff revolt. Grammar might be more to the point.

It seems to us equally likely that what we're seeing is a relatively insular group of geeks and grunts who fear change. Even the written petition [pdf format] signed by some 23 employees falls short of a ringing declaration of war against the boss over science:
An unfortunate public debate is now occurring over the ability of the National Hurricane Center to meet its mission. The undersigned staff of the National Hurricane Center has concluded that the center needs a new Director, and with the heart of the hurricane season fast approaching, urges the Department of Commerce to make this happen as quickly as possible. The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake. The staff of the National Hurricane Center would like nothing more than to return its focus to its primary mission of protecting life and property from hazardous tropical weather, and leave the political arena it now finds itself in. [italics added]
That's clearly a statement carefully-crafted to attract as many signers-on as possible. ("Okay, so you're against firing him, but isn't it true that you'd like nothing more than to return to our primary mission?") It reads more like a tepid acknowledgment that controversy has been diverting staff attention from their jobs -- something we would characterize as a self-fulfilling prophecy if it weren't for the fact NOAA administrators virtually invented that particular theme -- "undue concern and the misunderstanding among your staff" -- in the push-back two months ago.

So what really lies behind Proenza's firing? As Capitol observes --
At this point it's difficult to gauge who is right and who is wrong in the dispute: Proenza and his dwindling and largely silent group of supporters (his family?), the NHC staffers who kicked their director when he was down and want him gone, or the NOAA leadership who wanted him out weeks ago.
Our guess -- and that's all we can do -- is that Proenza is a real manager with a gruff exterior. "Though his message was on target," as the Miami Herald editorialzes today, "Mr. Proenza's blunt approach was undiplomatic and problematic."

Sometimes he even might have raised his voice. That's not the way to manage the NHC staff, a lot of whom apparently want a sugar daddy at the head of the "family" and not a boss.

We love 'em all at the NHC. After all, they're the ones who will warn us about the next approaching hurricane. The only good news to come out of this mess is that at last the staff will stop trying to second-guess management and get back to the jobs they are competent to perform.

Monday, July 09, 2007

U.S. Attorney Speaks Out -- And How

HT to TPM Muckraker for this one. John S. Koppel, for the moment still a current Justice Department attorney, writes in the Denver Post:
The public record now plainly demonstrates that both the DOJ and the government as a whole have been thoroughly politicized in a manner that is inappropriate, unethical and indeed unlawful. The unconscionable commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's sentence, the misuse of warrantless investigative powers under the Patriot Act and the deplorable treatment of U.S. attorneys all point to an unmistakable pattern of abuse.

In the course of its tenure since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has turned the entire government (and the DOJ in particular) into a veritable Augean stable on issues such as civil rights, civil liberties, international law and basic human rights, as well as criminal prosecution and federal employment and contracting practices. It has systematically undermined the rule of law in the name of fighting terrorism, and it has sought to insulate its actions from legislative or judicial scrutiny and accountability by invoking national security at every turn, engaging in persistent fearmongering, routinely impugning the integrity and/or patriotism of its critics, and protecting its own lawbreakers. This is neither normal government conduct nor "politics as usual," but a national disgrace of a magnitude unseen since the days of Watergate - which, in fact, I believe it eclipses.

In more than a quarter of a century at the DOJ, I have never before seen such consistent and marked disrespect on the part of the highest ranking government policymakers for both law and ethics. It is especially unheard of for U.S. attorneys to be targeted and removed on the basis of pressure and complaints from political figures dissatisfied with their handling of politically sensitive investigations and their unwillingness to "play ball." Enough information has already been disclosed to support the conclusion that this is exactly what happened here, at least in the case of former U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias of New Mexico (and quite possibly in several others as well). Law enforcement is not supposed to be a political team sport, and prosecutorial independence and integrity are not "performance problems."

Then, there's that "taking responsibility" thing again:
[T]he administration has attempted to minimize the significance of its malfeasance and misfeasance, reciting its now-customary "mistakes were made" mantra, accepting purely abstract responsibility without consequences for its actions, and making hollow vows to do better. However, the DOJ Inspector General's Patriot Act report (which would not even have existed if the administration had not been forced to grudgingly accept a very modest legislative reporting requirement, instead of being allowed to operate in its preferred secrecy), the White House-DOJ e-mails, and now the Libby commutation merely highlight yet again the lawlessness, incompetence and dishonesty of the present executive branch leadership.
Not much more to be said except, "Good luck finding another job, John."

Misestimating the Enemy

"The Bush administration's recent shift toward calling the enemy in Iraq "al Qaida" rather than an insurgency may reflect the difficulty in maintaining support for the war at home more than it does the nature of the enemy in Iraq."
Glenn nailed it more than two weeks ago:
That the Bush administration, and specifically its military commanders, decided to begin using the term "Al Qaeda" to designate "anyone and everyeone we fight against or kill in Iraq" is obvious. All of a sudden, every time one of the top military commanders describes our latest operations or quantifies how many we killed, the enemy is referred to, almost exclusively now, as "Al Qaeda."
John F. Burns, sadly, was one of the most egregious offenders in print on June 23 (now discretely hidden behind Times Select) and on the increasingly unreliable News Hour two days later. But he had lots of imitators in the media who dutifully transcribed George Bush's fantasies and called it reporting.

Now, the Times' ombudsman acknowledges we were misled when its reporters mindlessly repeated agitprop from Bush administration military leaders.
Why Bush and the military are emphasizing Al Qaeda to the virtual exclusion of other sources of violence in Iraq is an important story. So is the question of how well their version of events squares with the facts of a murky and rapidly changing situation on the ground.

But these are stories you haven’t been reading in The Times in recent weeks as the newspaper has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq — and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.

And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.

There is plenty of evidence that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is but one of the challenges facing the United States military and that overemphasizing it distorts the true picture of what is happening there. While a president running out of time and policy options may want to talk about a single enemy that Americans hate and fear in the hope of uniting the country behind him, journalists have the obligation to ask tough questions about the accuracy of his statements.

The paper now is circulating to its reporters "a memo with guidelines on how to distinguish Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia from bin Laden’s Al Qaeda."

It's a start. But what they really need is Glenn Greenwald's bullshit detector.

July 9 am
Glenn has follow-up here and here:
The Times is still doing exactly what it did before the invasion of Iraq -- the activities that supposedly brought it such "shame" -- and in many cases, it is exactly the same people who are doing it.

Just consider what Hoyt's criticisms yesterday mean. These criticisms apply not only to one article, but rather, to a whole series of articles. The criticisms concern not some obscure topic or isolated special report, but rather, the single most important political and journalistic issue of this decade -- the war in Iraq and the American media's coverage of government claims about that war.

And most significantly of all, Hoyt's criticisms are grounded not in a technical violation of some petty rule or failure to adhere to some debatable journalistic custom, but rather, involves the worst journalistic sin of all: namely, a failure to treat government claims with skepticism and a willingness mindlessly to recite such claims without scrutiny. If a newspaper simply prints government claims without skepticism, what remote value does it have other than as a propaganda amplifier? None. And yet, as Hoyt's column potently demonstrates, that is exactly what the NYT is doing in Iraq -- yet again.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Quote of the Week

"What politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply."