Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Jean Gerard


Take Showkar Kariz for example.
It's thirty miles northeast of Kandahar
as the crow flies over Mohammed Qasim's head.
He's the only remaining inhabitant now.
He looks up into a cloudless sky.

"There's no Al Quaeda here," says he.
"I had just dug out a child when
the second strike flew over. That time
they got him!"
He squints in the sun,
rubs his eyes.
"These are war crimes," he says.
Then: "Guess who came by last week,
and for what? Americans," he says.
He's tired. His voice shakes. "They
buried a piece of the World Trade Center
here," he says, "and took a piece
of our mosque back to New York."
He points
to a small mound beside a ruined wall,
sifts a handful of dust through his fingers.

Jean Gerard

(Published at Poets Against the War.)

Made-To-Order Sausage

My weekly visit to Watching America was rather enlightening. There were far fewer articles which dwelt exclusively on President Obama. Most of the articles dealt with matters of current US policy, domestic and international. The article that drew my attention, however, was one that explored how our Congress operates.

From France's Liberation:

Just in time for this Thursday’s “health summit,” called by Barack Obama in an effort to save his health care reform plans, comes a new study from the Center for Public Integrity: There are currently no less than 4,525 lobbyists trying to influence health care reform legislation, meaning that for each elected representative in the American Congress, there are eight lobbyists.

Businesses and organizations (hospitals, insurance companies, pharmaceutical labs, doctor’s associations, etc.) trying to affect health care legislation spent over $1.2 billion on lobbying last year. “It was money well spent” notes the Center for Public Integrity, whose report presents several examples of the lobbyists’ successful campaigns, including the elimination of a provision for a new public health care plan as well as numerous propositions to save money. The American Medical Association (AMA) spent $20 million last year to lobby congress on behalf of doctors. The association successfully struck from the bill a $300 annual tax that would be paid by doctors who care for those insured by Medicare or Medicaid (public insurance programs for the elderly and the indigent) and a provision to tax plastic surgery.
[Emphasis added]

I was intrigued by the article for several reasons. First of all, I was unaware that the report had been released. I did a quick Google check just to make certain I hadn't slept through a couple of days of reporting by the traditional US media. The release of the report didn't show up in the first 20 articles (although a few bloggers mentioned it). Apparently our vaunted free press didn't consider the report newsworthy, even though it was released just before the White House Summit on health care reform. I had to find out about the report from a French newspaper.

Second, even though the US MSM didn't consider it newsworthy, a French newspaper surely did. Not only that, but Liberation also showed a sophisticated knowledge on just how our Congress operates, including the fact that special interests were willing to spend enough money to ensure that the reform bill would suit them, even enrich them. The French, who have universal access to health care, must be laughing themselves silly over their ally's penchant to pass laws favoring the highest bidder.

Third, and most important, was the report itself, which can be found here. We all know that K Street has an inordinate amount of power over Congress, but this report shows just how that power has been purchased, right down to the last dollar. During his campaign, President Obama promised to limit the influence of lobbyists, but it was to K Street he turned when he issued the invitation to discuss reform at a White House meeting which initiated the health care reform proposals. That isn't change; it's going along to get along, which appears to be his modus operandi for leading this nation.

The sad part is that even if congressional Democrats are able to get this bill passed, the public which elected them are going to be purchasing the sausage that was made to order for someone else, and it will cost us dearly.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Rex Babin of the Sacramento Bee. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Humpback Whale

(Photograph by Coy Aune and published at National Geographic.)

Things That Make You Shriek

Reading this article was not the best way to start the weekend. The anti-abortionists have come up with a twisted new twist in their campaign to stop the right to abortions.

For years the largely white staff of Georgia Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, tried to tackle the disproportionately high number of black women who undergo abortions. But, staff members said, they found it difficult to make inroads with black audiences.

So in 2009, the group took money that it normally used for advertising a pregnancy hot line and hired a black woman, Catherine Davis, to be its minority outreach coordinator.

Ms. Davis traveled to black churches and colleges around the state, delivering the message that abortion is the primary tool in a decades-old conspiracy to kill off blacks. ...

This month, the group expanded its reach, making national news with 80 billboards around Atlanta that proclaim, “Black children are an endangered species,” and a Web site,
[Emphasis added]

What is so disheartening is that the campaign is having some success. The anti-choice movement has done its homework. Anti-abortionists point to Margaret Sanger's interest in eugenics as a factor in this alleged conspiracy to wipe out the black race, even though nothing in her writings suggests that was part of her interest in this failed science. They point to the number of clinics in black neighborhoods which offer abortions as clear evidence, ignoring the fact that the clinics have chosen sites that are more accessible to poor black women than a clinic located across town. And then the anti-abortionists pull out their trump card: the statistics that show black women have more abortions than white women:

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

The anti-abortionists have put all of these facts together and concluded that it's all a racist conspiracy. Fortunately, the Times article did manage to leave a little space for another interpretation of these facts.

But those who support abortion rights dispute the conspiracy theory, saying it portrays black women as dupes and victims. The reason black women have so many abortions is simple, they say: too many unwanted pregnancies.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Loretta Ross, the executive director of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective in Atlanta, listing a lack of access to birth control, lack of education, and even a high rate of sexual violence. “There’s an assumption that every time a girl is pregnant it’s because of voluntary activity, and it’s so not the case,” Ms. Ross said.
[Emphasis added]

That some black women may choose not to have an abortion for religious or cultural reasons doesn't upset me. I am committed to their having that choice, as committed as I am for all women to have the choice to end their unwanted pregnancies. What does upset me is that once again women are being misled about their rights to make that choice. This effort is particularly loathsome because of the racist tinge added to the mix.

Loathsome and shameful.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Meanwhile, Back In The Voting Booth

Election 2010 is just around the corner, less than six months away. It's bound to be a contentious one if yesterday's healthcare summit at the White House is any indication, contentious and quite possibly close. That's why this NY Times editorial is a timely one. The very last thing we need right now is a reprise of Election 2000.

It was bad news for the voting public when Election Systems and Software, the nation’s largest voting machine company, announced last fall that it was acquiring the elections division of Diebold, the nation’s second-largest voting machine company.

The combination could mean that nearly 70 percent of the nation’s precincts would use machines made by a single company. If the deal is allowed to go through, it would make it harder for jurisdictions to bargain effectively on price and quality. The Justice Department should reject it as a violation of antitrust rules that is clearly not in the public’s interest.

In the elections since 2000, Diebold has been excoriated for machines that were easily manipulated and hackable and for its refusal to make public its code. The bad press was sufficient to nudge the company into making some concessions, but only grudgingly and only at a glacial pace. That's bad enough, but Election Systems and Software has an even worse record.

A group of election administrators, fair-voting advocates and computer experts wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. recently to warn of the dangers if the deal closes. They warned that Election Systems and Software already has a bad record on open competition, including contract clauses that prevent jurisdictions that buy their machines from hiring other vendors to service them.

The Justice Department, as the editorial points out, does have some antitrust powers. This is clearly the time to use it.

Of course, it also would help if Congress stepped in and revisited the various bills proposed in the past which would have at least required a paper trail to back up the electronic tallying, but that might be asking too much from our congresscritters who are too busy whining on other issues to consider actually protecting this integral part of our democracy.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ignoring The Obvious

I found myself chuckling at this Washington Post article about former Vice President Dick Cheney's fifth heart attack. I wasn't laughing at the fact that America's Darth Vader had had another myocardial infarction: that would be mean spirited. Rather, I was wryly amused at the chest-thumping by the WaPo reporter with respect to the advances by the mighty American medical establishment.

Here's what it said:

Richard B. Cheney's fifth heart attack may add to the lore surrounding the seemingly indomitable former vice president. But his ability to survive repeated coronaries is more a testament to modern medicine's advances in detecting and treating the leading killer than any supernatural powers.

Many people think of heart attacks as inevitably dramatic events involving chest-grabbing emergencies. But many attacks identified today, although potentially serious, can cause little if any damage to the heart -- and may go unnoticed. ...

Cheney, 69, who was released from the hospital Wednesday two days after suffering chest pain and a "mild" heart attack, has benefited from a steady improvement in the ability to diagnose heart disease and treat it, which has sharply reduced the death toll and improved the longevity and quality of life for survivors.

I do not dispute the improvement in the treatment of heart disease, nor do I downplay its importance for those who suffer the disease. I just think the article overlooks a few key factors. Mr. Cheney is still alive after those five heart attacks because he could take advantage of those medical improvements. He had access to the best health care money and insurance could buy.

He didn't have to worry about how to pay for an emergency room visit and then days or weeks in a cardiac care unit, followed by months of follow-up treatment. He didn't ignore the signal of potentially lethal cardiac event, chest pains, he went to a hospital. He had health insurance coverage. He didn't have to worry about that access.

Nor did he have to worry about how close he was to the dollar limit of his coverage, the "stop loss" provision. Presumably he is wise enough to make certain that limit is extremely high, given his medical history. That is no doubt expensive, but Mr. Cheney is wealthy. He can afford it. Yes, his service in government probably means his insurance coverage is a combination of a government pension benefit, Medicare, and a supplemental benefit which he pays for, but it presumably is still expensive even if a significant portion of it is paid by taxpayers.

Moreover, as a politically powerful man, he didn't have to worry about his insurance company denying authorization for the kind of magnificent treatment he received. There was probably no delay in his receiving that state of the art implanted defibrillator when his doctors recommended it because he and his doctors had to appeal an adverse decision.

Like I said: he had access to the best health care money and insurance could buy. The rest of us, however, don't have that kind of access. In fact, many of us don't have any access whatsoever. That's what this round of health care reform was supposed to address in a meaningful way.

It hasn't.

And no well-orchestrated summit in the White House is going to change the fact that Dick Cheney is alive because he is wealthy and powerful, something the WaPo article didn't even mention.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Capitalism Works: 101

I still am amazed that some of the most interesting reporting in the Los Angeles Times occurs in the Business Section. Either I'm getting old or the Business Editor actually "gets it."

Yesterday, there were two important articles on Anthem Blue Cross, the health insurance giant owned by Well Point, related to the huge premium increases announced by the largest issuer of individual health insurance policies in California. Anthem, which will be discussing those hikes with Congress, maintains that the premium hikes are necessary to offset the cost increases in medical care. Somehow, however, the company was able to send millions of dollars to the parent company. Just how much is detailed in this article.

If that doesn't raise suspicions, the issues raised in this article should. It seems that Anthem has run afoul of state law with respect to how they do business, and the state Insurance Commissioner isn't too happy:

California's largest for-profit health insurer violated state law more than 700 times over a three-year period by failing to pay medical claims on time and misrepresenting policy provisions to customers, the state's insurance commissioner said Monday.

Anthem Blue Cross of Woodland Hills could face fines of up to $7 million stemming from the alleged violations from 2006 to 2009. Commissioner Steve Poizner said the insurer repeatedly failed to respond to state regulators in a "reasonable time" as they investigated complaints over the last year.

Nearly 40% of the violations in the Anthem case, 277, stem from allegations that the company failed to pay patient claims within 30 days as required by state law, officials said.

Read in tandem, the two articles are a fine example of why access to health care shouldn't be entrusted to the marketplace. Doctors don't get paid, patients don't get the treatment they've been promised, but corporations reap millions in profits in what can only be seen as a variation of a Ponzi scheme.

There is this, however: the coverage by the Times has come at a particularly auspicious moment. Insurance companies are being shown up for the greedy entities they are just when health care reform was losing some steam. And for that at least, I am grateful.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Senate Sausage

Apparently the "silly season," also known as "campaign time," has hit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who's running for re-election himself, has discovered that time is running out on the 111th Congress and very little has been accomplished that will favorably affect the vast majority of voters. Health care reform is currently on the back burner, awaiting the president's summit meeting, so Sen. Reid turned to the jobs bill we've been waiting for and he pulled out a victory of sorts.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Senate Democrats leaped a key hurdle toward passing a scaled-down jobs bill Monday, gaining support from several Republicans -- including the newest GOP senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

That's right! Sen. Reid cobbled together a coalition of sorts to cut off a filibuster on the first of what the Majority Leader said will be a series of bills to address the joblessness issue. Of course, it probably helped that some Republicans are also facing re-election during a period when voters of all stripes have made it clear how disgusted they are with the Congress as a whole, and the Senate in particular. Here's the breakdown, one with a little twist at the end:

Monday's vote was widely viewed as a test of whether the Senate could pass any significant legislation after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof 60-vote majority with Brown's election. The chamber has been gridlocked by party-line squabbling for the better part of a year, with virtually every bill requiring a 60-vote supermajority.

In addition to Brown, Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, Missouri's Christopher S. Bond and Ohio's George V. Voinovich voted to cut off debate on the jobs legislation, which is likely to pass when it comes to a vote later this week. ...

Democrats needed two GOP votes to ward off a filibuster because Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is undergoing treatment for stomach cancer. They ended up with five, but lost one of their own: Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska sided with the GOP.
[Emphasis added]

The bill itself is thin soup, and by itself will probably accomplish very little in terms of any kind of mass hiring. It is, however, a start. If Sen. Reid fulfills his promise of more such bills in incremental fashion, we might actually see something decent come out of this Congress before November.

Here's a brief summary of the bill:

Along with a Social Security tax break to encourage businesses to hire workers, the $15-billion package would replenish the depleted Highway Trust Fund, which uses gasoline taxes to repair interstate roads; expand the Build America Bonds program, which helps state and local governments fund infrastructure projects; and allow small businesses to write off large equipment purchases immediately rather than depreciating them over several years.

It's nowhere near the more comprehensive bill passed by the House, but it's enough to show some willingness to get something done and should pass quickly. Then Sen. Reid will introduce the next bill, one that adds a little substance to the broth. Why this couldn't happen earlier as part of the original stimulus package is still a mystery. I guess the threat of elections have more consequences than actual elections.

We'll see.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

It Worked Once

As a rule, I am in favor of recycling. I even separate my trash, and I bring my own grocery bags (made from recycled plastic bags) to the store each week. It just seems like the right thing to do. Recycling ideas, however, rarely is such a good deal, yet that is apparently just what Republicans are going to do this election cycle. They are bringing back the "Contract For America." In fact, right now, they are bringing back several versions, each claiming to be the new and improved form.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Conservative strategists centered the 1994 Republican campaign on a "Contract with America." This year, GOP leaders in the House have pledged to issue their own, updated version of that agenda, which is widely credited with having helped Republicans focus their message and win a historic victory.

But this time, the declaration of principles that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio has promised will have to play in a crowded field.

A version of the tea party-backed "Contract From America" was unveiled last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual showcase of leaders and activists on the right. The unveiling came a day after another group -- including many of the elders of conservatism -- announced their own manifesto, dubbed the Mount Vernon statement after its signing at a library near George Washington's estate.

I get the impression that the Republicans are still having problems unifying the party. I mean, how many contracts does one need during? And whatever happened to the idea of a party platform?

Reflecting that lack of unity, former Republican House leader Dick Armey, now a leading voice of the limited-government, anti-tax tea party movement, said the tea party contract wouldn't be necessary "if Republicans had the credibility to do it themselves. They don't." [Emphasis added]

Ah, Mr. Armey has noticed that his party still has a few moderates. Well, this should root them out. Mr. Armey also has expressed a preference. He likes the "Contract From America." Catchy name, no?

Armey's Washington-based advocacy group, FreedomWorks, has endorsed the "Contract From America," which bills itself as culled from the collective wisdom of Internet activists. Its organizer, Houston attorney Ryan Hecker, has been soliciting policy ideas through a website for months and has selected 22 that will be narrowed to 10 through an online vote. [Emphasis added]

Even though Mr. Hecker didn't invite me to express my opinion (I am, after all, an Internet activist--I'm a blogger), I did go over to his website. The general titles of each entry are pretty innocuous, the details are a bit more revealing. Go visit. It's enlightening, after a fashion.

Although I suspect this is mere gimmickry on the part of an energized ultra-conservative wing of the party, I also admit that it worked in 1994. The question now is whether Americans can be sold this bill of goods in November. Stranger things have happened, after all. We "elected" George W. Bush twice.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Marge Piercy

Because it's time once again to be reminded.

The Low Road

What can they do
to you? Whatever they want.
They can set you up, they can
bust you, they can break your fingers, they can
burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can't walk, can't remember, they can
take your child, wall up
your lover. They can do anything
you can't stop them
from doing. How can you stop
them? Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.

But two people fighting
back to back can cut through
a mob, a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon, an army
can meet an army.

Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction.
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Marge Piercy

Another Year In

Cab Drollery is five years old today, and I must admit that I didn't think I'd still be doing this, especially this last year. On a personal level, I had to take the month of August off to allow myself a cooling off period after getting the results of my annual Alzheimer's testing. This time the doctors indicated that there were sufficient changes that made it probable I would develop the disease that hit my father and brother. I don't have the usual symptoms, and I was told that it would be several years at least before I'd even need the current medication regimen. By that time, more breakthroughs would probably be made and I might never be ravaged the way my loved ones had been. I certainly hope so.

The month was well spent, although at a high cost. I couldn't guarantee Ruth that the blog would re-open so I urged her to start her own. She didn't do that (at least not yet), but she did land a nice slot at Firedog Lake, where she quite frequently gets front page billing. She's as sharp as ever, and now has the audience she deserves. Go visit, especially on the weekends.

During that month I also watched the ongoing failures of the Obama administration and the 111th Congress, now controlled by the Democrats. I knew I couldn't keep my mouth shut about the disappointment and anger at those failures or I'd explode, so I returned. Here it is, six months later, and we still don't have health care reform, much less meaningful health care reform, and we still don't have an economic turnaround for anyone but the moneyed interests as joblessness continues to grow along with homelessness, and wages continue to stagnate. The nation is even more divided, but at least pretty much everyone agrees that the current government is not our friend, but rather the captive of K Street.

So, there's plenty of work to do, especially as the midterm elections roll around. Ruth chose the graphic heading this post several years ago. I've used it ever since, and for good reason. It is an uphill battle, but one that I think is more preferable to the alternative. Maybe next year I'll be able to post a birthday cake, but it might take a little longer than that.

So stay tuned in, your seat belts buckled. The Cab continues to roll.

Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Rex Babin / Sacramento Bee (February 19, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on the image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Tiger

(Photograph by Michael Nichols and published at National Geographic. It's the Chinese Year of the Tiger, and National Geographic lists some of the efforts to save tigers and other big cats in the wild.)


I have to admit that I have been fascinated by the fall-out surrounding Joe Stack's suicide attack on an IRS office in Texas. Was he just profoundly disturbed man, disgruntled by his dealings with the tax people? A patriot? Or, as some of my fellow liberals would have it, a terrorist? After reading this post written by Dan Turner for the "Opinion L.A." section of the Los Angeles Times, I'm still not sure.

Turner, however, thinks he's a terrorist, based on what I consider a rather lame exercise in dictionary definition gathering. He then makes a rather stunning leap in logic:

Stack, one could argue, wasn't a terrorist, because his cause appears to have been personal rather than political. His Web rant never fully explains his beef with the IRS, but it's clear that he was a very angry man who felt he had been screwed by the powers that be and aimed to retaliate.

Yet it's also striking how much his rhetoric resembles that of a very powerful political movement in the United States: the "tea party" crew. He portrays himself as a hardworking engineer beaten down by an overreaching government "full of hypocrites from top to bottom." He's mad at the government's failure to follow the principles of the Founding Fathers, at the federal stimulus that bailed out rich bankers but not the likes of him, and at the failure of politicians to represent his views. The one discordant note from what otherwise sounds like a symphony of Palinism is his complaint about the healthcare system; unlike movement conservatives, he appears to be angry about the failure of reform.

Mr. Turner then quotes from Mr. Stack's "Manifesto" (which was captured and can be found here) in support of his thesis.

"I know I'm hardly the first one to decide I've had all I can stand. It has always been a myth that people have stopped dying for their freedom in this country, and it isn't limited to the blacks, and poor immigrants. I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be many after. But I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change... I can only hope that the numbers get too big to be whitewashed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less."

Can anybody doubt, on reading these words, that Stack intended to use violence to advance a political cause, or that he hoped to inspire others by example?

I wasn't convinced by the cherry-picking, so I called an old friend of mine who is far more knowledgeable than I am on federal statutes. He assured me that as the statute is written Mr. Stack probably would not have been charged with terrorism and shipped off to Guantanamo Bay (or a military brig in the U.S.) had he survived the plane crash. And then he asked me a crucial question: "What does it matter?"

Indeed, what does it matter? I had wanted the label applied because I wanted Stack's last act equated to the last acts of the 9/11 murderers. Why? Because it would mean that white conservatives can be just as dangerous as brown Muslim jihadists. But that's just as poor a use of language as the tea partiers' calling President Obama a fascist communist Nazi.

I still don't know whether or not Mr. Stack was a terrorist. I do know, however, that his last action was made easier for him to consider because of the reckless use of language which the far right has used for years. Sometimes the target of that language is a doctor who performs abortions. Sometimes it's the federal and/or state government. Sometimes it's a university. When people are urged to carry guns to political meetings as a political statement, the likelihood of someone actually getting shot increases.

I'm getting too old for this kind of dangerous rhetoric from both sides of the spectrum.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

The Empire Strikes Back, Again

A couple of weeks ago, some health insurance companies got a public relations black eye when news of dramatic premium increases coupled with increased deductibles and decreased coverage. Anthem/Blue Cross in California was the main culprit in California (see my post here). This week, news of increases in premiums for private Medicare policies ("Medicare Advantage") has hit the fan.

From an AP article:

A study to be released Friday by a major consulting firm found that premiums for Medicare Advantage plans offering medical and prescription drug coverage jumped 14.2 percent on average in 2010, after an increase of only 5.2 percent the previous year. Some 8.5 million elderly and disabled Americans are in the plans, which provide more comprehensive coverage than traditional Medicare.

Medicare Advantage plans claim to provide more comprehensive coverage when it comes to medical care and prescription drugs. For that, beneficiaries pay higher premiums. That's only part of the story, however. Medicare has to pay these programs as well, and it costs the government program more for these plans than traditional Medicare. Nice, eh? Last year, the government told the insurance companies offering Medicare Advantage that the reimbursement would be cut, and the insurance companies retaliated this year by going after the beneficiaries' dollars:

"Medicare Advantage plans continue to be paid about 13 percent more than original Medicare," said Medicare spokesman Peter Ashkenaz. "The plans need to explain why these increases are necessary."

Eric Hammelman, a senior Avalere data analyst, said that after the government cut payments to the plans last year, the insurers faced a choice. "They could raise premiums or lower benefits, and what most of them decided to do was raise premiums," he said.

Are the various Medicare Advantage insurers going broke because of skyrocketing medical costs? That's not likely. Remember: these are 'for profit' organizations. The problem is not that they're showing losses, it's that their profits aren't as healthy as they would like. If they were truly losing money, they would get out of the Medicare Advantage program.

I'd be interested in seeing not only the financial statements of these companies for the past five years, but also the salaries and bonuses paid to top executives. I'd also like to hear about any incentive programs involving reduced payments to providers and denial of treatment recommendations which reward claims examiners for "cutting costs."

Of course, all of this would be unnecessary if we had Medicare For All, funded by payroll deductions, but, hey!, that would be too socialistic. Or something.


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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Doin' The Science

Here's today's good news: medical marijuana provides benefits to the patients using it. A center was set up by the California state legislature a decade ago to conduct research into whether marijuana actually has a positive, verifiable effect on people with pain disorders and other calamitous medical conditions. The answer is yes:

Much of the research is still underway or under review, but five studies have been published in scientific journals. Four showed that cannabis can significantly relieve neuropathic pain and one found that vaporizers are an effective way to use marijuana. Another study, submitted for publication, found that marijuana can reduce muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients. ...

The center funded a range of research, including six studies of whether marijuana reduces neuropathic pain, which is caused by a damaged or abnormally functioning nervous system. A UC San Francisco study of patients with HIV-related pain found that 52% of those who smoked marijuana experienced significant relief.

"I think that clearly cannabis has benefits," said Dr. Donald I. Abrams, a San Francisco oncologist who led that study. "This substance has been a medicine for 2,700 years; it only hasn't been a medicine for 70."

That's the good news. The bad news is that the funding for the center's research is about to run out and the state clearly doesn't have the money to refund the program. It's about time for the federal government to step up so that the research can continue. It's also about time for the federal government to reclassify marijuana. Now that the benefits of the drug have been shown scientifically, marijuana needs to be removed from the "Class 1" category.

You might want to send your congresscritters the link to the article provided above with a polite request that they get moving on the issue. Point out the health aspect, but don't be afraid to remind them how many people are filling our prisons and depleting our budgets for use and sale of cannabis. It is, after all, the 21st Century.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

They're Back

I am once again surprised to find that the most intelligent and responsible columns in the Los Angeles Times inevitably can be found in the Business Section. As a Liberal, I just never thought that would be the case, but Michael Hiltzgig has finally convinced me.

His subject today is the latest move by the GOP to gut Social Security for the benefit of his buddies on Wall Street:

Like a zombie tromping through a Hollywood gorefest, the idea of privatizing Social Security still walks among us.

The last promoter of the idea that people should personally invest their Social Security assets in the stock market was President George W. Bush, in 2001. With the dot-com crash still ringing in people's memories, the idea died in 2005.

The market hasn't yet recovered from its most recent crash, but the monster unaccountably is back on its feet. This time it comes dressed up as part of the "Roadmap for America’s Future" recently unfurled by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking GOP member of the House Budget Committee.

The Roadmap is a retort to the charge that the Republican Party contributes no ideas to the national debate on fiscal issues, only "no" votes in Congress. It's a road map to the dismantling of federal social programs under the guise of making them fiscally sound, while cutting taxes for the rich. (The plan eliminates taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends.)

Social Security comes in for particular abuse. Ryan states that "Social Security's shrinking value and fragile condition pose a serious problem. . . . To maintain the program's significant role as a part of the retirement security safety net, Social Security's mission must be fulfilled . . . without bankrupting future workers."

One doesn't want to be picky about an elected congressman's words, but with all due respect, these words are pure bilge. They come straight from the talking points of Social Security's historical enemies: conservatives who have never believed that the government should play such an important role in people's retirement planning, and mutual fund and insurance companies that hanker for the business generated by millions of Americans looking for a profitable place to park their retirement assets.

Amen, brother! Social Security is probably the only government program that continues to take in more than it pays out. It's role in post retirement plans, thanks to Rep. Ryan's buddies and their profligate ways which lead to the current economic mess, has increased, rather than decreased.

Here are a few of the details for the "new-and-improved" Republican plan:

His privatization scheme would allow workers under 55 to place more than one-third of their current Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, with the ultimate goal of shifting most of that money into the stock market. The enticement is that the stock market, over time, yields more than other investment sectors, so future retirees will have a bigger nest egg than they're promised today by Social Security.

Hello? Dot com? The 2008 and 2009 Wall Street meltdown? Does Mr. Ryan have a short memory or does he just assume the rest of us do?

Whatever, the goal is the same one the Republicans had in 2001: the complete dismantling of a social program that has benefited millions of Americans and that millions of other Americans count on. It's not a give-away, it's an insurance plan that we've all paid into.

The Democrats, with a little help from the rest of us need to kick this proposal to the curb and then stomp the life out of it.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Spending Our Money

On Saturday, I posted on Billy Tauzin's retirement from the lobbyist business. He was apparently nudged out by his bosses at PHARMA for giving away too much in the negotiations with the White House on health care reform. Apparently lobbyists shouldn't be quite so liberal with the big corporate dollars, even if those dollars did buy some pretty generous concessions from the White House.

PHARMA isn't the only lobbying group in DC doing business these days. The banksters we bailed out have gone full tilt in making sure there are no bothersome regulations put into place that will save us from another financial meltdown.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Even as the financial industry has sought to keep a low public profile, some of the country's largest banks have ramped up their spending on lobbying to fight off some of the stiffest regulatory proposals pending in Congress.

Lobbying expenditures jumped 12% from 2008 to $29.8 million last year among the eight banks and private equity firms that spent the most to influence legislation, according to data compiled from disclosure forms filed with Congress.

The biggest spender was JPMorgan Chase & Co., whose lobbying budget rose 12% to $6.2 million, enough for the firm to have more than 30 lobbyists working for it. Among other banks, spending on lobbying rose 27% at Wells Fargo & Co. and 16% at Morgan Stanley.

"I have never seen such a scrum of bank lobbyists as I have in the last year -- and I've worked on quite a few bank issues over the years," said Ed Mierzwinski, a lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a coalition of state consumer organizations. "It seems like everybody is out of work except for bank lobbyists."
[Emphasis added]

The whole point of the proposed legislation is to prevent the insane financial nonsense that drove up bonuses but drove down the economy. When the banks received hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to keep them afloat, the White House and Congress quickly discovered that the mantra "too big to fail" just did not sit well with an electorate that lost homes and jobs in the recession deepened by the shenanigans of banks and Wall Street. Once the government got the message, some attempt, albeit a half-hearted one, to rein in the financial institutions was put into play. Apparently those financial institutions didn't get the same message.

The intensified efforts on Capitol Hill have come as banks, facing unrelenting anger over the financial crisis and government bailouts, have avoided publicly resisting a push to reform the industry. Many of the firms even reduced campaign contributions by their political action committees last year. And three big banks that have faced especially heavy public criticism -- Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. -- cut back or held steady on lobbying last year.

But the increased spending by other firms -- as well as by industry groups -- suggests financial firms are making their voices heard more than ever.

"Despite the decline in credibility with the public, the banks appear to have increasing power" on Capitol Hill, said Travis Plunkett, a lobbyist with the Consumer Federation of America.
[Emphasis added]

Congress now has a dilemma: the mood of the electorate is, to say the least, sour and an election looms for a goodly number of those currently serving. It will be interesting to see just whom those in Congress will choose to serve.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Going Home

The tea partiers have decided to do more than just hold, well, tea parties. They've decided to take over the Republican Party one precinct at a time, which, if you think about it, is a pretty smart move on their part.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Across the country, tea party groups that had focused on planning rallies are educating members on how to run for GOP precinct representative positions. The representatives help elect county party leaders, who write the platform and, in some places, determine endorsements.

"That's where it all starts. That's where the process of picking candidates begins. It's not from [GOP leader] Michael Steele's office down. It's from the ground up," said Philip Glass, whose National Precinct Alliance is among the groups advocating the strategy. "The party is over for the old guard." ...

In Arizona and Ohio, Republican Party officials report an increase in candidates running for precinct positions, which often sit open because of a lack of interest.

In South Carolina, a coalition of tea party groups has made a formal agreement with the state GOP to urge its members to get engaged at the precinct level.

In Nevada, a group of "constitutional conservatives" working under the tea party banner has already taken control of the Republican Party in the Las Vegas area, gaining enough strength to elect six of the seven members of the county executive committee.
[Emphasis added]

I have to admit that I was kind of hoping these people were going to form their own party, one that would split off just enough voters from the Republican Party to give the Democrats a second chance at governing. As I thought about it again this morning, however, taking the Republican Party even further to the right (yes, that is possible) might have the same effect. The tea baggers are a diverse group with lots of diverse ideals, many of them unbelievably squirrely. Will enough voters turn out for a candidate who still maintains that President Obama is ineligible to hold his office because he wasn't born in the United States? How many people will vote for a candidate who believes that the best way to govern is through prayer? Some, certainly, but enough to take over the country? I don't think so.

I'll tell you what, though: this is a good strategy on their part, one that we liberals should be paying attention to and emulating. Getting involved in the process at the precinct level is a pretty good way to start getting more liberals elected at the state and local level. And it's also a good way to push the party into a more honestly representative model. Ringing doorbells and making phone calls are important, but being in on the decision making process is just as important, perhaps even more so. It certainly would get our party's Old Guard's attention. That in itself would be an improvement.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Torture Is A Crime

It was kind of a dull day at Watching America yesterday. China is miffed at us for selling arms to Taiwan. Iran is still promising to become a nuclear power. Latin America is annoyed that President Obama is not paying more attention to its neighbors. Europe is fascinated by Sarah Palin. Interesting all, I'm sure, but none really grabbed me. Michael Harwood's column in "Comment Is Free" (England's The Guardian), however, did.

Mr. Harwood, in discussing the decision by the UK's judiciary to publish a memo prepared by US intelligence agencies on the torture of Binyam Mohamed, makes it clear that at least at this point neither country has gone completely over to the dark side. The judges of both nations are still digging their heels in.

The UK court ruling in the case of Binyam Mohamed demonstrates once more that judges on both sides of the Atlantic have had enough of governments hiding behind national security "secrets" to shield themselves from their many trespasses in the "war on terror".

The court's decision to publish a seven-paragraph summary of intelligence given to MI5 by the CIA has been met by the convenient, and wholly unbelievable, argument from British and American officials that the release could damage intelligence co-operation and sharing between the two allies.

Mr. Harwood calls "Bullshit!", and properly so. When the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband whined that the court's decision would mean the end of cooperation between the nation's intelligence agencies, the White House sent out a spokesperson to nod in agreement, "Uh-huh, that's right. Now we can't trust you enough to let you know when your country is about to be hit." Hacks and flacks, however, are stupid instruments, as this particular case makes eminently clear.

I cannot imagine a scenario in which the US would not keep the UK apprised of any danger uncovered in any way. There really is a special relationship between the two countries. Furthermore, if word got out (as it usually does at some point or another) that the US failed to warn any country of an impending terrorist attack there would be hell to pay.

But Mr. Harwood's point goes beyond that:

...the seven-paragraph summary details that the interrogation practices endured by Mohamed while in American custody during 2002 constituted "at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment". It reveals nothing besides the fact the US and its proxies resorted to barbarous methods to extract information from captives they believed were al-Qaida terrorists.

Second, far more damning information on Mohamed's torture was published last year by a US court. In November 2009, US District Judge Gladys Kessler granted the habeus corpus petition of Gitmo detainee Farhi Saeed Bin Mohammed – another indicator of the cross-Atlantic return of the rule of law. The prisoner had been held indefinitely without charge at Guantánamo Bay since 2002, based partly on Mohamed's confessions to US interrogators. There was one problem, however: US interrogators coerced Mohamed's allegations against Mohammed through torture. "The government does not challenge Petitioner's evidence of Binyam Mohamed's abuse," Kessler wrote in her decision. It's important to note that the "abuse" Mohamed says he endured during his detention included having his genitals slashed by a razor.

In short order, the information the British court ordered released yesterday was neither intelligence nor secret. What it did show, however, was what we already knew. The US had systematically tortured detainees it deemed terrorists without due process, and British intelligence was complicit.
[Emphasis added.]

Judge Kessler did her job, as have many other District Court Judges on the issue of torture, and as have her counterparts in Britain. How long that will be true in this country remains to be seen. Obviously the current US Supreme Court is a little dicey when it comes to such decisions, primarily due to the Democrats' obsession with dry powder the past ten years.

More troubling, however, is the fact that the current administration fought vigorously to have the memo of the torture suppressed in the British court, even as it continues to fight to have such information suppressed in current US court hearings. President Obama promised all of that would end, and yet his Department of Justice continues the battle on "state secrets."

This is just one more issue in which nothing has "changed." And, in the long run, it might just be the most important one.

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Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Rex Babin / Sacramento Bee (February 12, 2010) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Lowland Gorillas

(Photograph by Richard Conde and published at National Geographic)

Don't Let The Door Hit You

I was tempted to caption this post "Saturday Fat Cat Blogging," but I feared that might lock me into a new feature, one that I knew I would find distasteful. The heavens know that there are plenty of candidates for such a feature, but I just don't have the constitution for that kind of examination. In my opinion, people like Billy Tauzin should be held up for scorn, but they also shouldn't get any more attention than that.

Having said that, I must admit that I took great pleasure in reading this article in the NY Times. It appears that Mr. Tauzin, who is famous for giving away the government store in his wheeling and dealing when he was a congressman, got into trouble with his next employer (PHARMA) for doing the same thing.

Mr. Tauzin is leaving his $2 million-a-year job as the top lobbyist for the drug industry amid complaints from drug makers that he bargained away their profits too cheaply, spent too much in his $150 million advertising campaign to sell the overhaul and miscalculated in his assessment that the passage of the legislation was all but inevitable.

Other drug industry lobbyists, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said his departure raised questions about whether the drug makers would continue to support the proposed overhaul, which has stalled in Congress. ...

Mr. Tauzin’s supporters in the drug industry trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, known as PhRMA, say that he was essentially undefeated in his five years representing the industry on Capitol Hill — beating back a phalanx of proposals to cut drug costs, including allowing foreign imports or government price negotiations.

Apparently that wasn't a good enough deal for PHARMA. They expected everything. After all, they are PHARMA. The bottom line is all that matters. It is, well, the bottom line. Profits must grow annually at a double digit rate, their customers be damned.

Mr. Tauzin's last notable act as a congressman was what got him his high paying job as a pharmaceutical company lobbyist. His brokering of a deal to get the Medicare Part D bill passed included a provision that the government would not be able to negotiate on prices for drugs, thereby enriching the drug makers. How ironic that a similar act as a lobbyist dealing with the White House on health care reform is what cost him that job.

Now Mr. Tauzin can retire to his Texas ranch, one paid for while he was a congressman by his lobbyist buddies under the guise of it being a "hunting club" which required its "members" to pay regular "dues." Hopefully, we won't hear too much more about the cagey Cajun.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Cat Blogging

Blow Those Whistles!

Blackwater/Xe is in the news again, and not in a nice way. Two former employees have filed a "whistle blower" suit against the company claiming the government contractor found all sorts of ways to screw the American taxpayers.

Two former employees of Blackwater Worldwide have accused the private security contractor of defrauding the government for years through phony billing, including charging taxpayers for alcohol-filled parties, spa trips and a prostitute.

In court records unsealed this week, a husband and wife who worked for Blackwater said they have firsthand knowledge of the company falsifying invoices, double-billing federal agencies and improperly charging the government for personal expenses. They said they witnessed "systematic" fraud in the company's security contracts with the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. ...

Brad Davis, a former Marine, served as a Blackwater team leader and security guard, including in Iraq. His wife, Melan Davis, worked as a finance and payroll employee, starting in Louisiana. Their lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows whistle-blowers to win a portion of any money the government recovers as a result of the information. However, the Justice Department has chosen not to join them in pursuing their lawsuit, a decision that led to the suit being unsealed this week.

The company changed its name to Xe Services LLC last year. Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke said Thursday that the Davises' allegations are false. "The allegations are without merit and the company will vigorously defend against this lawsuit," she said. "It is noteworthy that the government has declined to intervene in this action."

The Washington Post article, written in collaboration with the Center For Public Integrity details some of the allegations made by the Brad and Melan Davis. It sounds like a typical laundry list for private contractors feeding at the government trough. If even a few of those allegations are borne out at trial, those who believe in shrinking government by outsourcing to those private contractors will be faced with the fact that their plans inevitably cost the taxpayers more than it would have cost to have the government perform those same services. Relying on the corporate mentality of doing it on the cheap almost inevitably does cost more because there is no incentive to keep costs down when Uncle Sugar is paying the bills.

Unfortunately, the federal government has declined to intervene in the lawsuit, depriving the Davis's law team of a well-funded discovery partner. There are all sorts of reasons for the DOJ's decision: the allegations didn't appear to be well-founded; the DOJ has its own investigation going on and didn't want to tip the defendant as to what they've found in a bigger case; or the Davis couple are just "disgruntled former employees." The article is silent on the reasons, probably because the Department of Justice was silent when asked by the Center for Public Integrity.

Maybe DOJ will be more forthcoming if asked by a congressional committee. That might prove interesting.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Things That Make You Go "Whoa!"

I suspect that if you went to the dictionary to look up chutzpah you'd find a picture of Dan Coats.

From the Washington Post:

If there were any question where lobbying ranks in popularity these days, the attacks on former senator Dan Coats of Indiana over the past week provide a pretty clear answer.

Coats, a Republican who served in Congress for nearly 20 years, is preparing a run to win back the seat occupied by Sen. Evan Bayh (D). National Republicans see an opportunity to target Bayh for his support of President Obama's stimulus and health-care plans.

The problem for Coats is that he spent a good part of the past decade as a well-connected Washington lobbyist, which doesn't bode well politically in the age of tea partiers and grass-roots anger at Wall Street.

Now, I'm not exactly thrilled with Evan Bayh, but come on, Republicans, a "well-connected Washington lobbyist"? Haven't you seen all the glory the press has been heaping on teabaggers and birthers?

Snark aside, Mr. Coats' list of clients the past decade is quite impressive:

The former senator has had scores of corporate lobbying clients over the years, including health-care firms (Amgen, United Health Group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), bailout recipients (Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch) and communications companies (BellSouth, Sprint Nextel, Verizon). Another past client is Cerberus Capital Management, where Dan Quayle -- whose seat Coats took over in the Senate -- is a top executive.

Those are just the domestic clients. Mr. Coats has also represented other governments and other foreign companies.

Further, Mr. Coats no longer lives in Indiana. He lives and votes in Virginia, presumably to be closer to his office, which apparently is close to the Capitol. Now he wants to move his office into the Capitol itself, which should make commuting much easier.

I suppose I shouldn't be shocked at this development. In a crazy kind of way it is simply the next logical step in the growing corporatocracy this country is developing. Instead of the revolving door in which elected officials run on corporate donations (now guaranteed to be even more generous), serve a few years and make a whole lot of money, retire on a government pension, wait a few more years, and then get hired by a lobbyist group, the lobbyists just become senators or representatives. The scary part is that the next logical step is cutting out this whole business of holding elections.

Just shoot me now.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Where Will They Go?

Last week I pointed out that Latino voters in this country are disillusioned by the lack of any movement on a meaningful immigration reform bill. A study has come out which suggests that disillusionment could have a big impact on the November elections. Forty races could be affected, including two rather big ones.

From McClatchy DC:

The report by America's Voice, which supports comprehensive new immigration policies, says that revising the laws is the defining issue for Latino voters. The report says that progress — or the lack thereof — in revamping immigration laws and regulations could affect as many as 40 congressional races in areas with sizeable Latino populations, including the re-election bids of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., just two years ago his party's presidential candidate.

The study says that Obama and Democrats who campaigned in 2008 on the promise of revamping immigration laws benefitted from a 54 percent growth in registered Latino voters between 2000 and 2008.

Some 10 million Latinos voted in the 2008 presidential election. Obama received 75 percent of the Latino vote while McCain received 25 percent.

Since the election, several Latino organizations and leaders have expressed frustration with Obama and congressional Democrats for not aggressively pushing a comprehensive immigration bill. The complaints grew louder after Obama barely mentioned immigration in his State of the Union address last month.

Latino leaders and groups are similarly frustrated with Republicans. They feel that the GOP is promoting and campaigning on an anti-immigration agenda in hopes of attracting so-called "tea party" voters who prefer stricter policing of the U.S. border to a comprehensive policy, which they consider to be amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.
[Emphasis added]

The study crunched some numbers and the article points to what those numbers could mean in at least two states:

Increases in Latino population and voter registration in several key states could make Latinos players in this year's mid-term elections, according to the study. The report points to 12 states where registered Latino voters account for between 3.2 and 32 percent of the electorate.

The competitive races include Arizona, where McCain is facing his first serious primary challenge from former Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth and two other anti-illegal immigration candidates: Chris Simcox, a founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, and Jim Deakin, a businessman and Navy veteran.

Obama captured the Latino vote in Arizona by 56 to 41 percent. Latinos make up 14.8 percent of the state's voting population.

The study also singles out Nevada, where a politically vulnerable Reid has a crowded field of Republicans lining up to run against him. Latinos, who make up 12.8 percent of Nevada's registered voters "will play an important role in the Senate campaign and could be a decisive factor in whether the Senate majority leader returns for his fifth term," the study said.

So, where will the Latinos go? Will they punish the Democrats and vote Republican? Probably not. What they may do, and this could be devastating to races in states other than Arizona and Nevada (including California and New York), is simply stay home. And that would be a defeat for the nation as a whole.

Heckuva job, Barack and Harry. Heckuva job.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Corrupt Tomatoes

For the past nine years we've been told that one of our biggest threats just might be terrorist attacks on our food supply. It turns out that the threat came from an entirely different source: big business. From the Los Angeles Times:

In a series of court filings starting in 2008, federal prosecutors in Sacramento allege that Rahal, nine others and SK Foods of Monterey, Calif., used more than $330,000 in bribes from 1998 to 2008 to subvert competition and nail down deals to sell the company's tomato paste, peppers and other products to Kraft Foods Inc., Safeway Inc., Frito-Lay North America and B&G Foods, among others.

All but one of the individuals have pleaded guilty to offenses typically associated with organized crime: racketeering, collusion, bribery, money laundering and bid-rigging. Five of the people worked for SK Foods; four were employed by its customers. SK Foods' sales plummeted as the case unfolded and it was sold out of Bankruptcy Court last year to a Singapore firm.

Federal prosecutors, however, say the investigation into SK Foods is just the beginning as the government ramps up its scrutiny of the food sector.

Behind the push are growing concerns that, as the industry becomes increasingly consolidated, the public's grocery bills are getting bigger in part from corrupt or monopolistic practices among food processors, distributors or farmers.

Step into a grocery store these days and on almost every aisle there's an item tied to a federal investigation: dairy distributors, egg producers, citrus firms and seed developers are all the targets of federal lawsuits or investigations. Starting next month, the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold meetings to gather complaints and hear concerns over lack of competition in the dairy, grain, livestock and poultry sectors.
[Emphasis added]

What is noteworthy about the SK Foods cases is that there was corruption in the company which depended on the corruptibility of certain employees in their customers' operation. Apparently that was no problem at the big-name food companies listed in the article.

That the Department of Justice has been aware of these shenanigans for several years and has aggressively pursued them is good news. That the jerks working for Kraft and Frito-Lay and the other food giants got nailed for taking the money is also good news.

I don't think we need to worry as much about foreign grown terrorists as we do our own corporate giants for whom the bottom line is more important than providing safe and affordable food.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Insurance In Name Only

David Lazarus' most recent column in the Los Angeles Times is entitled "When healthcare coverage is insurance in name only." No, he's not writing about some fly-by-night scam preying on working class people. He's talking about the highly rated for-profit health insurance company Anthem (Blue Cross) which last week announced double digit premium increases for its individual policies. Some of the beneficiaries got hit with increases over 20%, and the only option they were given was to purchase policies with less coverage and higher deductibles. Mr. Lazarus pointed to one couple, the L'Esperances, who faced just that choice:

The L'Esperances have been covered by Anthem for about a dozen years. At first they had a $1,000 deductible on their policy, but they had to raise it to keep their monthly premium at a manageable level.

They were paying about $1,250 monthly last year with a $2,500 deductible each. Then Anthem said their premium would rise to almost $1,400.

To deal with that, Paul said he and Jan raised their deductible yet again to $5,000 in return for an $834 monthly premium.

Now that amount's going up to nearly $1,000 -- almost as much as they'd been paying with a deductible half as big.

Anthem claims the increases are necessary, given the higher costs of medical care, yet the company made quite a tidy profit in the last accounting year, a profit they decided needed protecting and even increasing this year. In all likelihood, they will succeed. The California Insurance Company is investigating the premium hikes, but the department has no real authority to challenge the increases in most cases.

So, the L'Esperances really had little choice in the matter. Now they have what might be called catastrophic coverage: a policy that will be helpful only if they are diagnosed with cancer or have a heart attack. For that they are paying nearly $12,000 a year in addition to the $5,000 deductible.

Anthem gave its group coverage clients the same kind of news last summer and then again last month. I know, I got hit with it. Because I am essentially a part-time employee I don't get the benefit of the employer-provided benefit. I pay for my participation, but at least I am covered under a policy I couldn't get as an individual plan because I have pre-existing conditions and because I am 63 years old.

That's why the health care reform promised by President Obama is such a big deal, and that's why the hideous plan developed by the Senate is such a huge disappointment. Rather than let that plan die, the president has now invited leaders from both sides of the aisle to meet with him to revive even that mess of a plan. The GOP indicates it will participate, but only if the idea of reforming health care starts from scratch.

That's fine with me. Start from where the reform should have: with a single-payer Medicare-for-all plan. Cut the blood sucking insurance companies out of the action completely and develop a bill that will rein in costs from the major health care providers.

I'm not holding my breath for that one, however. I don't wear blue effectively.


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sunday Poetry: Kenneth Koch

The Boiling Water

A serious moment for the water is
when it boils
And though one usually regards it
merely as a convenience
To have the boiling water
available for bath or table
Occasionally there is someone
around who understands
The importance of this moment
for the water—maybe a saint,
Maybe a poet, maybe a crazy
man, or just someone
temporarily disturbed
With his mind "floating"in a
sense, away from his deepest
Personal concerns to more
"unreal" things...

A serious moment for the island
is when its trees
Begin to give it shade, and
another is when the ocean
Big heavy things against its side.
One walks around and looks at
the island
But not really at it, at what is on
it, and one thinks,
It must be serious, even, to be this
island, at all, here.
Since it is lying here exposed to
the whole sea. All its
Moments might be serious. It is
serious, in such windy weather,
to be a sail
Or an open window, or a feather
flying in the street...

Seriousness, how often I have
thought of seriousness
And how little I have understood
it, except this: serious is urgent
And it has to do with change. You
say to the water,
It's not necessary to boil now,
and you turn it off. It stops
Fidgeting. And starts to cool. You
put your hand in it
And say, The water isn't serious
any more. It has the potential,
However—that urgency to give
off bubbles, to
Change itself to steam. And the
When it becomes part of a
hurricane, blowing up the
And the sand dunes can't keep it
Fainting is one sign of
seriousness, crying is another.
Shuddering all over is another

A serious moment for the
telephone is when it rings.
And a person answers, it is
Angelica, or is it you.

A serious moment for the fly is
when its wings
Are moving, and a serious
moment for the duck
Is when it swims, when it first
touches water, then spreads
Its smile upon the water...

A serious moment for the match
is when it burst into flame...

Serious for me that I met you, and
serious for you
That you met me, and that we do
not know
If we will ever be close to anyone
again. Serious the recognition
of the probability
That we will, although time
stretches terribly in

Kenneth Koch

A Bit Of A Surprise

I rarely am shocked by the stuff I find at Watching America, but I must admit I blinked a couple of times yesterday. I just didn't expect to find an opinion piece in the English-language version of Al Jazeera co-authored by a US Congressman. The piece, a well-written essay on what the US really needs to do in Afghanistan, was written by Hekmat Karzai (the director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies based in Kabul, Afghanistan) and US Congressman Michael Honda (D-CA) (Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce). Their advice is right on the money, in my opinion.

Here are a couple of their points:

The precedent of pursuing solely military solutions in a country where insecurity runs rampant across political, economic and social spectrums is being rethought and revamped. This is a good thing.

What must also remain front and centre in all decision-making, however, is the constant query for what Afghans want and how to move operations quickly towards Afghan ownership. Most policies fall far short of these two goals.

A failure to win the hearts and minds of Afghans is a failure to win the security the US is seeking at home and abroad. On three critical fronts - security, governance and development - these shortcomings are evident.

Security, arguably the Afghan and foreign governments' primary objective, is seriously struggling, but not for the reasons that one is led to believe. ...

A primary reason why the security sector is struggling is because the attrition rate is dangerously high due to poor wages, soaring casualty rates, insufficient training, and the fact that the soldiers and police are deployed away from their homes to other provinces where they are viewed as outsiders.

The low recruitment rates for Pashtuns in the south and southeast hardly helps either.

Additionally, some 2,000 US trainer positions for the Afghan army and police have remained unfilled for the second year running. ...

Lastly, the development agenda needs rethinking as Afghans see a foreign disinterest in the building of their country's capacity. ...

Afghan alternatives - like the government’s Community Development Councils, which fund locally elected councils to design and manage their own projects - should be the focus instead.

In order to build Afghan ownership and capacity, contractors may need to forego the actual building and instead redistribute the funds into Afghan institutions and initiatives like the CDCs as foreign affiliation with the CDCs will put council members at immediate risk.
[Emphasis added]

What Mr. Karzai and Congressman Honda are urging is that the US actually listen to the people of Afghanistan and tailor our plans accordingly. This war cannot be won militarily: the Soviets learned this the hard way, as did the British before them. The most we can hope for is the rebuilding of the country in ways that are acceptable and even desired by the people of that country. And then we should go home.

I am both pleased with and proud that Congressman Honda has shown the courage to provide this essay to Al Jazeera. He will clearly be a target by every conservative on both sides of the aisle for his efforts. He did the right thing, however. His advice is not radical, it is commonsensical.

From your lips, Mr. Honda, to the president's ear.


Sunday Funnies

(Cartoon by Mike Luckovitch and published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, February 06, 2010

Bonus Critter Blogging: Damsel Fly

(Photograph by Dennis Stewart and published at National Geographic.)

Something In The Water

I've been following the National Teabaggers' United Party in Nashville only half-heartedly. After all, only about six hundred people are in attendance, although those six hundred paid a lot of money for the privilege of listening to people like Sarah Palin (who apparently received $100,000 for the privilege to talking to the brave six hundred). Are the teabaggers getting scammed? Probably. Do they mind? Probably not. They're angry and need to vent with like-minded angry people. It's understandable.

Most of us are angry and with good reason. Many of us worked hard and gave money to elect candidates who made all sorts of promises about changing the way government does business only to watch the economy swirl down the commode. Then we got to watch the government reward those who caused the economic failure to the tune of billions of dollars of our tax money. The elected officials who comprise our government showed us quite clearly how they, well, do business.

Blame Bush, blame Obama, blame Congress. They all had a hand in it. What's so interesting at this point is that the American electorate as a whole is fed up with the politicians we have. The conservatives are angry at the Republicans. The liberals are angry at the Democrats. Those who classify themselves as "independents" are angry at both parties.

Tim Rutten's latest column in the Los Angeles Times details just how angry we are by citing multiple recent polls. Mr. Rutten chose a pretty good example of why we're all so disenchanted with the sausage makers:

In the face of these daunting issues, what was it that preoccupied the Senate on the eve of its long weekend recess? The legislative drama du jour is the standoff between the White House and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who has put a personal hold on more than 70 executive branch appointments until the Obama administration agrees to fund a couple of pork-barrel projects he has earmarked for his state. One involves tens of millions of dollars for an FBI laboratory focusing on improvised explosives -- something the bureau doesn't think it needs. The other involves contract specifications for an aerial tanker that Northrop Grumman and Airbus would manufacture in Alabama, if they win the deal. (Boeing also is competing for the plane, which it would build in Topeka, Kan., and Seattle.)

Unless the administration agrees to give Shelby what he wants, he intends to invoke an archaic senatorial privilege that allows him to prevent the chamber from considering any of the administration's nominees to executive branch vacancies, no matter how crucial. Without the 60 votes to force cloture -- another archaic convention -- there's nothing the Democrats or the White House can do.

Outside the Senate, Shelby's conduct would be called extortion; inside the chamber, it's a "parliamentary tactic."

It's also the sort of shabby situation that brings into sharp focus both the sources of congressional dysfunction and the popular discontent on both the left and right with the congressional parties. Earmarks and pork are anathema to a majority of conservatives and independents; the Senate's outdated, made-for-obstruction rules and susceptibility to special interests are a source of increasing frustration to liberals and some independents. Yet, here we have one senator from one Southern state obstructing with impunity an entire nation's business -- purely for his narrow constituency's financial interests.
{Emphasis added]

Shabby? I think that a polite understatement, but Mr. Rutten has nailed it. Sen. Shelby is just the current poster boy for the dysfunctional government in action. There are Democrats from all parts of the country engaged in the same tactics, as the give-aways in the health care reform process highlighted. It's the way they all "do" business, and that's why so many of us are so angry.

A pox on all their houses.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Friday Catblogging

Well, He Got That One Right

President Obama did the right thing this week, and it's about time.

From the Washington Post:

The Department of Defense will begin making the morning-after pill Plan B available at all of its hospitals and health clinics around the world, officials announced Thursday.

The decision came after a recommendation by the Pentagon's Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee, an advisory panel that voted in November to include Plan B and the generic Next Choice on the list of drugs all military facilities should stock. The Pentagon accepted the recommendation Feb. 3, a spokeswoman said.

It might look like a small step, and it might indeed be a small step, but it is an important one. The last administration forbade the drug on military installations, thereby depriving women serving in the military of a drug that most physicians consider simply another drug in the armament of women's health care. It is emergency contraception. To the Religious Reich, however, it is a form of murder and the anti-abortionists had President Bush's ear.

I anticipate that howls of outrage will emanate from the National Convention Of Teabaggers United in Nashville and, sadly, from the usual suspects in Congress today and for at least another week.

Pass the popcorn.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Aafia Siddiqui

Either I have suffered from a serious inability to pay attention, or there hasn't been much coverage of the Aafia Siddiqui trial, at least not outside of New York City. The last information I noted was back in November. Since then, Ms. Siddiqui's trial has gone forward and is now in the hands of the jury.

Ms. Siddiqui, who has been characterized as a very dangerous member of Al Qaeda by our government, is not on trial for any terrorist related activities but rather for attempted murder. She stands accused of firing on soldiers and FBI agents with one of the soldier's own rifle. That certainly is at the very least quite suspicious.

This article in the Los Angeles Times reports on some of the information on the trial. We learn, for instance, that apparently Ms. Siddiqui settled down and actually cooperated in her defense. She testified that she did not grab a rifle and begin shooting. She admitted that she tried to escape from the jail in which she was being held and interrogated. She claims that it was during her attempted escape that she was shot in the abdomen.

The article also notes some of the mysteries still surrounding her case: no one knows where two of her children are; no one knows where she was for three years (detained at Bagram? in training with Al Qaeda?); and no one will explain why she was not hit with any terrorist charges (although the article does indicate that she was designated as an Al Qaeda operative by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed while he was being questioned in 2003).

What the article makes clear, however, is that a lot of people in Pakistan are watching the trial proceedings carefully:

In Pakistan, however, Siddiqui is a victim and a hero, a courageous patriot who has withstood years of torture at the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, Afghanistan. Pakistanis insist that the charges are fabricated and the U.S. has only one option for righting the wrongs it's committed: Send their beloved Aafia home. ...

Siddiqui's case, however, has given Pakistanis a face to rally around. Demonstrations on her behalf have been attended by thousands, from Lahore to Karachi to Islamabad. Activists have sought intervention by the Pakistani government, which has agreed to pay for Siddiqui's defense team and has pushed the U.S. to repatriate her to Pakistan.

This does add an interesting element to the mix. The US depends on Pakistan a great deal in its war in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has cooperated, albeit grudgingly, with US forces, even putting up with intrusions into Pakisan by missile- firing drones and special forces. What happens if Ms. Siddiqui is convicted of attempted murder? Will the notably weak government lose what little control it has over large portions of its nation? Will the US find itself at war with yet another nation?

And what happens if the jury doesn't buy the government's story about the circumstances surrounding her detention and interrogation and acquits her? Will President Obama find that she is too dangerous to set free even after acquittal and order her indefinite detention? And if he does that, what will that do to our system of laws?

I know, I know. I'm still posing questions for which there are no immediate answers. What worries me is that some of those questions will never be answered, even though they could be.

I do know this, however, from start to finish, even under the "official" story of Ms. Siddiqui's case, this story stinks of illegality. And I am ashamed of my country for that.


The above was written last night before the verdict hit the wires: Ms. Siddiqui has been found guilty. Sentencing is set for May.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Hopey Changey Stuff, Or ...

...Been down so long it looks like up to me.

Welcome to America, brown brothers and sisters, and welcome to the table, the one that you will set but will not be allowed to sit at. It's not your time.

Like African Americans, women, and gays, you will have to wait your turn, and that will be years from now because more important issues will take precedence. The economy which brought lower billion dollar profits to the mega-corps, health care reform to fully fund insurance companies, Wall Street bailouts for the dim bulbs who lost billions but were paid millions: they are more important than your piddling concerns about legalization of your status after you have paid huge amounts into government accounts you will never be able to access, or about deportation splitting your families at the drop of a hat at the whimsy of a county sheriff who is all about padding his hours on prime time television.

You are simply not that important, even though hundreds of thousands of you spent ten times that number to become citizens so that you could introduce this country to its latest citizens by electing a man who promised to give you a break, to level the playing field. He isn't interested, nor are those members of Congress you turned out for in November, 2008. They have a crisis, or several crises, or something, to deal with, and a bunch of Mexicans, Central Americans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Haitians, Armenians will have to do what my Polish ancestors and my colleague's Japanese parents did. Sit back and wait your turn.

Or you can do something about it, as Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) hinted at recently in Los Angeles:

Many Latinos are furious at President Obama for failing to deliver on promises to push immigration reform legislation and may stay away from the polls during this year's midterm elections if they don't see concrete progress, including legalization of undocumented immigrants, a key Democratic legislator said Monday.

“People are angry and disillusioned,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) said in an interview with The Times.

Gutierrez said that Obama’s failure to push immigration reform was symbolized by his State of the Union address last Wednesday, when he devoted only 38 of about 7,300 words to the issue. The “throwaway line,” Gutierrez said, was the final straw for many activists who have been perturbed by the continued pace of deportations and other enforcement actions without concomitant progress in moving reform legislation forward.

Gutierrez said he was short at least 12 votes in the House to pass his immigration legislation, which would legalize most of the nation’s 12 million undocumented migrants, provide more family visas, increase worker protections and offer other reforms. He acknowledged that selling the bill to the American public at a time of double-digit unemployment would not be easy.

Of course it won't be easy, but it's not impossible. It took just a couple of brave students to sit in at a Woolworth's lunch counter and one woman to refuse to sit in the back of the bus to get the nation's attention. Two years ago, a million of you hit the streets in Los Angeles and got the same attention. That wasn't quite enough then, but it might be now.

A hundred thousand of you, along with those of us who know your time has come, showing up in Washington, DC might get a little attention. But if those hundred thousand of you make it clear that you are willing to stay home in November, 2010 rather than vote for the Democrats who sold you out in the 111th Congress maybe, just maybe, the Democrats will have to pay attention. Barbara Boxer is in for a serious fight. President Obama's "safe seat" in Illinois doesn't look so safe anymore. Harry Reid may find himself on the board of some mining company come January 2011.

Don't let them kid you: this is your time, just like it is the time for those of us who believe in the promise of this nation. We just have to stand up and shake our fists. Given the condition of the spines of those in elective office, that should be enough.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Another Boot Drops

It's been a rough year and a half for workers. Unemployment figures continue at double digits and each week more are added to the list. That means, among other things, that employers have an additional bit of leverage when it comes to their employees and at least some of them have taken full advantage. The latest bit of evidence of that came in an article in the L.A. Times dealing with the borax mine in Boron, California. Boron is a small town in Kern County about fifty miles or so from the Mojave Desert and has essentially been a company town since borax was discovered there about 70 years ago.

The mine, the second largest open mine in the U.S., was initially owned by U.S. Borax, the company which is famous for the "Twenty Mule Team" logo of the '50's and 60's. It has since been acquired by Rio Tinto, an international corporation now "based" in London but which is actually an Australian mining company, one of the biggest in the world. Apparently that corporation isn't happy with their profits, so they've engaged in a little "proactive" response during the latest contract negotiations with the union which represents the workers.

...Citing a 25% loss in its share of the global market, mining company Rio Tinto has spent the last five months trying and mostly failing to extract concessions from the union, including changes in the cherished seniority system.

The company now has threatened to lock out its roughly 600 hourly employees and bus in replacements as early as this morning.

Workers say it's all a thinly veiled attempt to break the union. ...

Rio Tinto employs some 720 people in Boron, paying $12 to $35 an hour. The London-based mining giant operates on five continents and reported $2.5 billion in net earnings for the first half of 2009, down 65% from the same period in 2008.
[Emphasis added]

The company showed a multi-billion dollar profit during the opening of an extremely rough period in the world economy, but it wasn't big enough, so the company expected the workers to give back some hard won concessions. While the article published later in the day than the one I saw this morning doesn't detail just what is involved, this morning's facts included not just seniority issues, but the right to hire non-union employees and to pay them less (thereby creating a two-tier system), to downgrade health care benefits so that only 80% is covered by the company, and to lower wage increases.

If the union doesn't play ball on this, the company will lock the workers out and bus in scabs. Those scabs won't be hard to find, not when unemployment in California is over 12%, and who can blame them too much? They're unemployed, have families and mortgages, and need a job. And a small town in Kern County, California will die, because what has sustained it for decades has decided that the coupon-cutters are more important than anything else in the world.

And that's what unfettered and unregulated capitalism is all about.

May God forgive those who believe that is the way of the world, because I certainly cannot.

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