Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Elephant

(Photograph by Beverly Joubert and published at National Geographic. Click on the link to learn more about this endangered species.)

Making Them Blink

The year ended with a victory for our side. Sure, it was just a small victory, but it was still encouraging. A major corporation, Verizon, was forced to blink. Apparently the folks at Verizon decided to ignore what recently happened to Bank of America when it decided to impose a fee on debit card use. Verizon announced a similar fee for the one-time use of a credit or debit card to pay a bill and all hell broke lose.

Verizon Wireless announced on Friday, after one day of consumer backlash and interest from a federal regulator, that it has decided to scrap a $2 "convenience fee" for credit and debit payments made either online or by phone.

"At Verizon, we take great care to listen to our customers," said Dan Mead, Verizon Wireless' president and CEO, in a statement. "Based on their input, we believe the best path forward is to encourage customers to take advantage of the best and most efficient options, eliminating the need to institute the fee at this time."
[Emphasis added]

At least it only took Verizon one day to go "Oops!" Maybe the BoA fiasco was suddenly recalled. Or maybe the "interest from a federal regulator" made someone a bit nervous. Me, I think having the issue go viral on the internet, alerting all sorts of customers to the latest corporate rip-off, was the determining factor.

Since the fee was announced Thursday, customers of the nation's largest wireless carrier have complained about the charge on Twitter, in Facebook groups and pages and Google+ too. The $2 charge is set to go into effect starting Jan. 15 for Verizon users not enrolled in automatic bill pay options who pay their bills online with a credit or debit card. ...

Molly Katchpole, a Washington activist and Verizon subscriber, started a petition at the online activism site calling for Verizon to scrap the $2 fee.

"Verizon just announced a new $2 fee for paying your bills online. Really. Even though paying via internet is fully automated," Katchpole's petition reads. "It's not just about the money (though if you're like me, you don't have extra cash to be sending to a giant phone company in order to pay your own bills.) It's that Verizon thinks it can do anything to its customers, and that we're powerless to stop it. (Spoiler alert: We're not.)"
[Emphasis added]


That's the spirit. And I hope it's as contagious as the damned flu. It's the only way I can see 2012 being any better than 2011.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

(Another kitty pic ripped from Presto Change-o. Go visit this blog for more wonderful cat photos.)

It Is To Laugh, Part 2

Last week I noted the outsourcing of justice by the Los Angeles City Attorney's office with respect to those Occupy L.A. protesters arrested for occupying the City Hall lawn. This week, the City Attorney has shown more creativity. That office is considering filing a suit against Occupy L.A. to recover the costs of protesters' exercise of their First Amendment rights.

From an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

With the Occupy L.A. encampment dismantled, the city is left with the task of refurbishing the battered grounds of City Hall and tallying up the costs of the occupation. Officials estimate the city spent $1.7 million in overtime for police enforcement. Graffiti must be removed from three monuments. And it could cost $400,000 to repair the irrigation system and replace the lawn (if the city upgrades to desertscaping). These are not insignificant figures, but suing the Occupy L.A. protesters to foot the bill — an option, according to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich — is wrong.

Of course it's wrong, especially since the City Council and the mayor's office both supported the protesters and welcomed them to stay as long as they'd like at City Hall. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich apparently has other ideas, apparently believing that will end the protests against a disconnect between government and 99% of its citizens. Irony is not dead.

Why the threat of a law suit? Well, it's a tool frequently used by the city:

The protesters did sue first, notes William Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy. In three lawsuits, groups representing the occupiers alleged civil rights violations before they were evicted, asking the courts for an injunction against eviction and for costs associated with their suits as well as any other relief deemed appropriate. Any time the city is sued, its attorneys consider countersuing, according to Carter.

How ... adult. "They started it!"

Once again, the editorial board has gotten it right (something I have to admit is happening more frequently):

... the City Council should drop any thought of trying to get its money back. That's one cost a city must bear for being open to all.


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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not So Free

One of the selling points for the healthcare act has been that it will save money for patients and for insurance companies by emphasizing prevention. For example, screenings for colon cancer and breast cancer would have to be paid for by insurance companies, but early detection would save the insurer down the road because early detection means less expensive treatment. That's fine in theory, but that's not how it sometimes plays out, according to an AP report published by the Sacramento Bee.

If a woman has had a positive mammogram in the past, even if it was a false-positive, the next mammogram is a diagnostic, not a screening test. Similarly, during a colonoscopy, if a doctor finds a polyp and snips it out, insurers maintain the test is no longer a screening but rather a diagnostic procedure. Neither scenario is covered by the prevention provisions of the act, so the patient at the very least has a copay to make. If the patient has a high-deductible policy, he or she may very well have to foot the entire bill. That's hardly a healthy incentive to have the testing performed. And that effectively defeats one of the provisions for reducing health care costs.

You've got to hand it to health insurance companies: they have a penchant for finding ways to save money. Unfortunately for policy holders, that cost savings too often has a negative impact on their health care needs.

The more things change ...


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

This And That

I really don't have the energy for any kind of original blogging right now. So instead of my bloviating on the news, I thought I'd show you some of the blogs I visit regularly with posts I've read in the last couple of days.

First off is Eschaton, a joint I spend entirely too much time at. The link includes the comment section which the denizens use as a chat room. The host, Atrios (Duncan Black) is an economist, so much of what he has had to say for the last couple of years addresses the various cataclysms. Lots of snark here, and more than a little rough language, usually to hilarious effect.

I think I do have great business idea: poverty porn for our Galtian overlords. Footage of mass misery is just what they need to cheer them up enough to hire another yacht scrubber or two.

Next, Suburban Guerrilla, run by Susie Madrak. Susie posts some wonderful youtubes, but she also has an eye for the political and nails it every single time. This link leads to a post on our desire for "protection" and what that means in a gun-happy culture.

I’d suggest that we all just stay home, but at least two people were shot by stray bullets while they were asleep this past week.

Another daily jaunt is to Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By. I consider Ronni's site to be the best of the elder blogs, full of common sense, wit, and whimsy. This post might very well explain my lethargy this week

It's an odd little season, this week between Christmas and the new year. A feeling of disconnect, a neutral period between past and future, a hanging moment for a few days when our concerns – personal and public – are held in abeyance while our planet's most recent circumnavigation of the sun winds down and the next begins.

For politics, nobody does it better than Libby Spencer's The Impolitic. Her most recent assessment of the Iowa Caucus is succinct but prescient especially for what it portends for campaigns this cycle at least.

The short version is retail politics have changed. The old maxim about all politics being local isn't true anymore. National campaigns are mostly embracing the 50 state strategy now. They can't tailor their messaging to specific audiences because there's a million "citizen journalists" with cell phones just waiting to create a viral video out of even the smallest discrepancy in their talking points. Big media will give them free exposure for any campaign generated messaging with national appeal. And thanks to Citizen United spending, outside interests can tailor the devious attack ads without candidate accountability, which changed their overall campaign tactics.

Finally, a blog that I just recently discovered but have fallen in love with: Phoenix Woman. Phoenix Woman has partners in this endeavor, and they are extremely capable. This post is by Phoenix Woman and points out the malfeasance of the US press when it comes to honest reporting of what's really going down in world finance.

America’s one-percenters — and the media companies they influence and/or control — are too busy pretending that the 99-percenters, the poor and middle-class people, are a burden that needs to be punished and stripped of whatever pennies they have so the one-percent crowd can get even richer. Anything that contradicts that pretense is generally suppressed by US establishment media, especially the media that most Americans encounter regularly.

That’s why, while you’ll hear and see lots of stories in the US media about Stern Germany Punishing Debt Sinner Countries, you won’t hear about German autoworkers getting paid twice as much as US ones. ...

That’s why you won’t hear that, far from dying, Japan is actually doing quite well, thank you very much: because Japan a) has a well-functioning social safety net and b) has reined in its rich people quite effectively.

It’s also why you won’t hear much about how Argentina, which told the IMF and World Bank “Enough!” rather than further hurt its own people at the banks’ request, is now the economic powerhouse of Latin America.

While I hadn't intended to fully retire and depend solely on Social Security, I have had the opportunity to visit sites such as these and to do some solid thinking. And that's a positive.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not So Equal, Not So Protected

I've long opposed the death penalty, primarily because I don't believe the state should be in the business of killing people for killing people. There are other reasons for opposing the ultimate punishment, of course, and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times reminds us of that:

Among the compelling arguments against capital punishment are its inherent brutality and its potential for error. But documented patterns of racial discrimination in sentencing are also well established and deeply troubling, particularly in cases in which the crime victim is white. A 2005 study of homicides in California from 1990 to 1999, for instance, drawing on FBI data, found that 2.1% of the offenders suspected of killing non-Latino whites were sentenced to death, compared with only 0.68% of those suspected of killing non-Latino African Americans.

North Carolina had hoped to offset that disparity:

In 2009, North Carolina's Legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, which allows defendants to make the case — at a pretrial hearing or after conviction — that statistics show that the death penalty has been imposed significantly more often on defendants in their geographical area because of their race or that of the victim. (Similar legislation was introduced in California in 2010 but languished in committee.) If the judge determines that race has been a factor — not in the individual case but statistically — then the death sentence may not be sought or would have to be vacated. Instead, the defendant would be sentenced to life without parole.

That was a rather dramatic, yet sensible approach. Unfortunately, Republicans now control the state's legislature and are busy trying to scuttle the law. While more overt forms of racism are gradually being weeded out, the less visible and often unconscious forms are still in play, which means that the punishment for the same crime differs based on race and/or ethnicity, a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

Admittedly, the use of statistical data is a departure from traditional notions of justice, which focus on the facts of the individual case. But it is possible that the system may be skewed as a whole without a judge consciously taking race into account when sentencing. Presenting statistical evidence could give a judge second thoughts about his unconscious biases. [Emphasis added]

Exactly so. It's at least a step in the right direction towards eliminating this barbaric practice.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

A Sign Of Hope

Sometimes people amaze me in a good way, and this is one of those times. Three returning vets decided to make a difference in a Baltimore neighborhood. Against pretty daunting odds, they are succeeding.

Operation Oliver, which began in July, is a one-year commitment to the neighborhood, the veterans say. It involves cleaning up alleys, rehabilitating homes, organizing volunteers and notifying police about illegal dumping sites and drug dealing.

To say the idea has caught on would be an understatement. Word of the intensive yearlong service project has spread throughout Maryland — and the nation.

Some veterans, such as Earl Johnson, a former Army Ranger who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, have moved into the neighborhood. Others, such as Jeremy Johnson and Blake, live elsewhere but visit Oliver frequently. Nearly 1,000 volunteers, including more than 100 veterans, have joined the effort. ...

The improvement is noticeable. Nearly 50 homes are being rehabilitated through Earl Johnson's organization, the One Green Home at a Time Foundation, another of the partners. Five tons of trash have been hauled away, an area that was once a site of prostitution is now a playground, an organic garden is planned for a weed-filled lot, and the veterans take residents on weekly job-hunting trips.

The neighborhood of about 5,000 people is predominantly black, and more than 70% of Oliver's households earn less than $25,000 a year. Of its 2,600 properties, more than 1,100 are listed as vacant by the city.

Because city and states can't or won't do the work necessary to rehabilitate such neighborhoods, the people had to do their own community redevelopment and had to do so without the funds which too often go to gentrification projects and strip malls. Instead of poor families being forced out, they are taking part in their neighborhood.

Glibertarian and other conservative sorts will probably use this as an example of why government assistance in such projects is unnecessary, that the people are capable of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. That's too facile an explanation. The people of that neighborhood needed the help and the encouragement provided by those returning veterans precisely because they had been forgotten and ignored by their own government. Now they're reclaiming what was theirs all along.

Good on them, and good on those vets.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Poetry: W.B. Yeats


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--W.B. Yeats

Jesus Wept

I thought seriously about skipping any substantive blogging for today, it being Christmas and all, but I am a creature of habit, so I made my weekly trek to Watching America. There wasn't much to grab me until I did a little nosing around. This is what I found.

From Austria's Die Presse:

Every 45th American child was considered homeless in the past year; 42 percent of them were six years old or younger. A study of the National Center for Homeless Families arrived at this result, reporting the number of homeless children for each of the 50 states separately.

According to the study, the U.S. West and Southeast are the hardest hit: The negative frontrunners are the currently Republican-governed states Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as Democratic-governed California and Arkansas. Every second homeless child is believed to live in one of these states.

The study spotlighted a period of four years and determined that even 2006, the “Year of Natural Disasters,” did not represent the high point of homelessness for children. At that point there were already 1.5 million U.S. children with no roof over their heads as a consequence of hurricanes Katrina and Rita; this number increased to 1.6 million in 2010. According to the study, the cause of the rise is the incipient recession in 2007. The conclusion is drawn that human-made disasters like the economic crisis can have a greater negative impact than natural disasters.

Further results of the study see a direct connection between the diminished ability of children to learn and the constant, traumatic experiences caused by homelessness. Not only do homeless children suffer from hunger, poor health and psychological problems, they also perform more poorly than “normal” children in reading and writing.

Merry Christmas.

While toys donated to the local Fire Departments and to the Marine Corps may take the edge of homelessness off on Christmas Day, those toys are thin soup come December 26th and the days and weeks thereafter.

There's something wrong with this nation, something dreadfully wrong.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Ted Rall and published 12/22/11 in the Los Angeles Times. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Donkey

(Photo by Daniela Londono and published at National Geographic.)

Trump Change

Some rather amusing news has broken out over the past 24 hours. First of all, Rick Perry didn't gather enough signatures to qualify for the Virginia GOP primary. I guess the dog ate some of his petitions on the way to the mailbox. Then, and this really did tickle me, there's the news that Donald Trump has changed his party affiliation.

After years as a registered Republican, the outspoken real estate mogul has filed paperwork to become an unaffiliated voter in his home state of New York.

Trump made the change official Thursday, a move prompted by his stated interest in mounting a third-party presidential run in 2012.

"Mr. Trump has said for almost a year that if he is not satisfied with who the Republican candidate is, he may elect to run as an independent," spokesman Michael Cohen said Friday. "This change in party affiliation certainly preserves his right to do so, after the finale of 'The Apprentice' in May."
[Emphasis added]

That was the same reason he gave for pulling out as moderator of a candidates' debate, although having all but two of those candidates refuse to appear with him probably entered into his decision. Still, it's clear that Mr. Trump has ambitions.

And it's clear that he can mount a third-party candidacy. He's wealthy enough to help fund his campaign, and he has plenty of contacts in the business world to help him out. Then there's the growing success of Americans Elect, the non-party party, which is now ballot qualified in six states, including California, and will probably qualify in most, if not all, of the rest. He has a ready-made vehicle which will have an extensive mailing list to assist him further. I'm certain he's aware of that.

This all has to make the Republican stalwarts nervous as hell, which is always a good thing.

Me, I'm back to stocking up on popcorn.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

(Ripped from Presto-Change-o. Click on link for more wonderful cat pics.)

This Makes My Head Hurt

Here's an excellent example of something that makes me crazy. I am quoting the article in full, "fair use" be damned.

We live in a world of conspiracy theories -- where nothing is as it seems, where even a politician's benign photo op might have a titillating back story.

Which brings us to the Obama family dog, Bo.

Bo was last seen in the company of the president, who took him to PetSmart in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday as part of a holiday shopping excursion.

So far, so good.

The rest of the Obama family, as we know, has already started vacationing and is in Hawaii awaiting the president's arrival.

Was Bo with them?

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported on Sunday that a neighbor spotted Bo on a walk in the tony neighborhood where the Obama family is staying.

Is it possible? Could the image-meisters at the White House really have insisted that Bo be flown back to Washington for a quick photo-op with the home-alone president?

That would raise pretty valid questions about whether taxpayers paid for the flight.

We asked First Lady Michelle Obama's office and quickly got an answer:

"Bo has been in D.C. this whole time."

I don't know which makes me crazier: the part that saw some kind of devious plot by the White House or the part that the Los Angeles Times saw fit to cover the story.

Maybe I'm just cranky today.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

It Is To Laugh

Now here's an interesting twist on the concept that "freedom isn't free":

Many Occupy L.A. protesters arrested during demonstrations in recent months are being offered a unique chance to avoid court trials: pay $355 to a private company for a lesson in free speech.

Los Angeles Chief Deputy City Atty. William Carter said the city won't press charges against protesters who complete the educational program offered by American Justice Associates. ...

...prosecuting the remaining protesters arrested on lesser charges would unduly burden the city attorney's office, said Trutanich's chief legal advisor, Curt Livesay. The office has seen its budget cut 25% in recent years.
[Emphasis added]

Irony is not dead.

Asking the anti-corporate-greed protesters to pay a private corporation for a lesson on First Amendment rights rather than risk additional jail time for exercising those rights in a peaceful manner is clear evidence that the City Attorney just doesn't get it.

The claim that his office can't afford to prosecute all of those cases because of budgetary problems due to the failure of corporations and their wealthy leaders to pay their fair share of taxes is clear evidence that the City Attorney just doesn't get it.

Lewis Carroll would be so proud.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

There's an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times about the role of religion in the Iowa caucus campaigns by the Republican candidates. Evangelical Christians, who traditionally turn out massively to vote in the caucus, have three candidates vying for their votes. Ironically, that could be a problem for the voters and for the candidates.

Mindful of Mike Huckabee's dramatic win in the 2008 caucus proceedings, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum have all been working hard to capture the Iowa evangelical vote. Each have visited churches across the 99 counties and have sat down with leaders in the hopes of getting endorsements. All three have had some success, which means that they may very well split the usually unified voting bloc.

The candidates who have spent the most time in Iowa — former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann and, lately, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — are faring the worst as the Jan. 3 caucuses approach. There are multiple reasons — money and gaffes among them.

But one key reason for their shared disappointment looms: The three are locked in competition for the state's huge bloc of evangelical voters, which represented 60% of caucus voters in 2008. Potent when undivided, it risks becoming insignificant when fractured in so many shards. Evangelical leaders have tried to push their flock in a common direction, but can't even decide for themselves on one candidate.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, evangelical Iowans are facing a surfeit of candidates, and the candidates are facing disappointing numbers because of the three-way split, leaving Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul far ahead of the three candidates. Just as important, the evangelicals' power is diluted when it comes to crowing the victor.

That doesn't make me unhappy at all.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thank You!

This internet thingie is really amazing, but not nearly as amazing as the people who frequent it. My plea for help got an absolutely astounding response, and I'm absolutely stunned and grateful at the generosity of folks, most of whom I've never met in meat space.

As a result, I've dodged the bullet. I've garnered enough money to wipe out a chunk of the money I owed on the rent and the landlord has agreed to back off on the eviction as long as I keep up on the current rent and pay down the money still outstanding in monthly payment.

This whole drama did, however, affect my health a bit, and the cardiologist and pulmonologist both have me on bed rest for the rest of the week. So posting will be sporadic. They both have also ordered me to gain weight, so those of you who offered goodies can still help out. I like cookies and fudge a lot so please feel free to send them on over.

I've gotten some thank-you emails out, and I will be responding to the rest in the next day or two.

Again, thank you all. May we all have a much better New Year.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Will Blog For Food


The hammer fell again, this time harder than usual. The landlord has given me a 3 day notice, and I barely have enough money to get to the local DPSS office to see if I can get a Department 8 grant for this month and next month to offset some of the balance I now owe.

As some of you know, I've not been working for the past 6 weeks at all, which leaves only my Social Security, which would have been fine if I hadn't had a serious pulmonary problem develop, which even with Medicare has tapped me out with all the co-pays for the specialists, tests, and medications. I also have state bar dues to pay if I want/am able to work next year. The main problem is that I only have enough money for that visit to Pasadena tomorrow. The cat has food. I have very little.

What I need is a bunch of small donations from a lot of people. I know it's the wrong time of the year to be asking for this kind of help (as if there's a right time), but I need it and I need it quickly. Please help if you can.

This time I'm really scared.


Sunday Poetry: T.S. Eliot

Morning at the Window

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

--T.S. Eliot


Nothing much grabbed me at Watching America yesterday. I attribute that to the holiday doldrums engulfing us all. One article worth noting, however, came from the UK's Economist. It's a timely piece, especially given the formal ending of the war in Iraq when seen against the backdrop of the US economy.

Around 800,000 veterans are jobless, 1.4m live below the poverty line, and one in every three homeless adult men in America is a veteran. Though the overall unemployment rate among America’s 21m veterans in November (7.4%) was lower than the national rate (8.6%), for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it was 11.1%. And for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24, it was a staggering 37.9%, up from 30.4% just a month earlier.

If demography is indeed destiny, perhaps this figure should not be surprising. More soldiers are male than female, and the male jobless rate exceeds women’s. Since so many soldiers lack a college degree, the fact that the recession has been particularly hard on the less educated hits veterans disproportionately. Large numbers of young veterans work—or worked—in stricken industries such as manufacturing and construction. Whatever the cause, this bleak trend is occurring as the last American troops leave Iraq at the end of this year, and as more than 1m new veterans are expected to join the civilian labour force over the next four years.

And of course it is also occurring in fiscally straitened times, though it looks as though this will affect veterans’ services less than other parts of the federal government. Though there have been some small fee increases for veterans covered by Tricare, the military health-insurance programme, significant cuts to veterans’ benefits are unlikely, and for good reason. Military pay is far from generous, and the benefits are comprehensive but hardly gold-plated or easy to navigate. Not for nothing is a popular online forum for veterans wending their way through the bureaucracy of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) called

Those numbers are staggering, yet hardly surprising. Many of these young men and young women don't have post-high school educations, nor did they receive transferable skills while in service. There have been some moves to ease the transition, most notably the recent passage of one sliver of the president's jobs bill that gives employers tax credits for hiring unemployed or disabled veterans. Unfortunately, one of the unintended consequences of the necessary highlighting of the psychological scars soldiers returning from combat carry has been to make employers somewhat leery of hiring the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq because they just might be walking time bombs. Tax credits may not offset that concern.

The biggest obstacle, however, is the economy. Joblessness overall remains stubbornly high and likely will continue into at least the next few years unless Congress and the White House "pivot" and start pumping money into programs that will benefit the 99% instead of the banksters. That hardly seems likely, given the contentious attitudes in Washington during an election year. The prevailing mantra is "cut the budget", which makes government spending to prime the pump out of the question.

As a result, veterans are returning home to little more than a handshake and some well-wishes, which neither feed nor house them and their families. That's cold comfort at any time of year, but especially so during the holiday season.

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Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (December 13, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC)


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Marbled Newt

(Photograph by Joel Sartore and published at National Geographic.)

Elder Belle's Blessing: Congressional Progressive Caucus

(Photo by Patrice Carlton and published at National Geographic.)

The Progressive Congressional Caucus is the latest recipient of this award, given to people who have gone out of their way to enhance the health and well-being of elders. Thanks to Ronnie Bennett at Time Goes By, I learned of the CPC's efforts in proposing a real jobs bill, one that also protects Social Security and shores up Medicare. Here is part of Ronni's summary:

On Tuesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus led by its chairman, Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, introduced H.R. 3638, the Restore the American Dream for the 99 Percent Act.

The Economic Policy Institute says the bill would create 5 million jobs over the next two years and reduce the budget deficit by $2 trillion over the next decade.

H.R.3638 contains the kinds of provisions that would get the country moving forward again. You know, stuff Congress should have been enacting during these past four years instead of lining the pockets of the already rich while American family budgets are circling the drain. And it aligns with much that the #occupy movement has brought to the nation's attention.

What follows this introduction is a summary of the various provisions of H.R.3638, so click on the link to Time Goes By for the details. Then follow the links provided by Ronnie, and check out the press release from the CPC which will lead you to even more specifics on the bill.

The provisions which directly affect elders are summarized deftly by Ronni:


• Public option: allowing a public option to operate with private in the health care exchanges saves $88 billion

• Negotiate drug prices: allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical saves $156 billion

• Enhancing Medicaid rates: the fastest way to support state governments would be to restore the increased federal Medicaid matching rates

• Scrapping Social Security cap: Social Security by law cannot contribute to the deficit; however people making over $106,800 do not pay taxes on the additional income. To ensure long-term solvency, this requires anyone making over $250,000 to pay the normal social security tax on their upper income.

It's not just these provisions which affect elders, however. Putting the country back to work and providing the nation with a sane economic policy affects us as well. We have families, and we want our children and grandchildren, as well as our friends and neighbors, to do well now and in the future.

The CPC and we have a rough road ahead in getting this bill passed in both houses of Congress, but we can move in that direction by contacting our representatives and senators urging them to do the right thing for a change. All of the nostrums we've been sold the past decades have failed us miserably. Now it's our turn.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging: Reprise

Easily Bought

I had thought about titling this post "Cheap Whores", but then it occurred to me that such a title would be unnecessarily insulting to decent sex workers everywhere. They at least work hard and provide a service. Some of our congress critters clearly don't do either.

It’s the steal of the century. For the price of buying a condo in Washington, D.C., you can support the political campaigns of members of Congress who support your trillion-dollar program. Talk about return on investment!

On November 9, Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) announced the formation of a Congressional Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Caucus that they are co-chairing. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive program in Pentagon history, and it has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and defects that have raised eyebrows at the Pentagon and in Congress (the latest official report on JSF problems was made public by POGO yesterday). As of its announcement, the JSF Caucus had 48 members of the House on its roster. ...

The primary contractors building the JSF -- Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Pratt & Whitney -- have contributed $326,400 to members of the JSF Caucus in the first year of the 2012 election cycle, according to a joint analysis of campaign finance data by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). These firms’ political action committees (PACs), which distribute campaign contributions to promote the contractors’ political goals, gave the average member of the JSF Caucus $6,094 -- nearly double what they gave to the average representative not in the caucus ($3,077).

And, it’s not just the corporate PACs that are funneling money to these legislators; individuals working for these firms also disproportionately direct their campaign contributions to these representatives.

In fact, thus far in the 2012 election cycle, the average member of the JSF Caucus has received nearly twice as much money ($706) from employees of the top four JSF contractors as the average House member who is not in the JSF Caucus ($387).

The F-35, years late and still deeply flawed, is turning out to be one of the greatest boondoggles in Pentagon history. Many in the military are so disgusted that they've made it clear that they don't even want the fighter jet, especially with the latest problems which will cost about $1 million per plane to fix, thereby adding to the cost over-run.

So why are members of the Joint Strike Fighter working so hard to keep the plane in production? The official reason is the program provides jobs in their respective district. I tend to think the "donations" from the contractors and their employees have a great deal to do with it.

What surprises me is how little money it takes to buy off members of Congress. I guess that the corporate cookie jar I mentioned yesterday has all sorts of goodies in it.

Nothing new here; move along, move along.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Information For The Privileged

It's no secret that members of Congress somehow come out of their service far wealthier than they went into it. What isn't as well known is how they manage that increase in personal worth. As reported in a recent "60 Minute" program, one way has been to engage in a practice that would be illegal if done by the rest of us, and apparently some in Congress want to keep it that way.

House Republican leaders have foolishly sidetracked a bipartisan ethics bill in Congress to ban members from using inside information they gain in private hearings and discussions in stock trades. Insider trading is illegal generally, but Congress’s apparent exception from the ban was never a concern on Capitol Hill until a recent report on “60 Minutes” questioned whether various members were profiting from back-room knowledge.

That report caused lawmakers in both houses to fast-track enactment of an explicit ban. The House version picked up 225 co-sponsors in a matter of days after gathering dust for years in the good-ideas hopper. However, committee action, scheduled this week, was abruptly postponed when Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader, said unnamed members considered the measure “flawed and being recklessly moved solely in response to media pressure,” according to Mr. Cantor’s spokesman.
[Emphasis added]

Apparently Mr. Cantor and some of his cohorts are unfamiliar with the role that a free press has in a functioning democracy. Either that or they want to subvert it for their own personal gain. The "60 Minutes" program raised important questions when it comes to those charged with representing us and not just the financial behemoths. That kind of "media pressure" is exactly what our press is supposed to exert when it is functioning properly.

I suspect that what the House Republicans blocking the bill really object to is being caught with their hands in the corporate cookie jar and having to face a sugar-free diet when it comes to their "just desserts."

Interestingly, the Senate has no such qualms. The governmental affairs committee has approved a bill which explicitly bans such insider trading. Presumably the bill will come to a vote soon (no doubt after the holiday recess), and will hopefully be passed.

Maybe in addition to "media pressure" some "constituent pressure" is in order. It is, after all, an election year.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

They're Back

Getting rid of cockroaches is difficult. Getting rid of congressional earmarks apparently is almost as difficult.

House Republicans banned earmarks, a top symbol of congressional profligacy, after they won control of the chamber last fall in a wave of voter anger over excessive government spending.

But more than half of the amendments to this year's House Department of Defense authorization bill were earmarks, according to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a leading congressional critic of the practice.

In a report to be released this week, McCaskill said that the House Armed Services Committee's chairman, Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., set up a system that enabled members to "circumvent the earmark ban" by offering pre-approved amendments that outlined the projects and the funds they hoped to secure for their districts.

And it's not just the staid old GOP regulars who are back to business as usual when it comes to larding up bills. The brand new Tea Party spawn and Democrats are doing their part to bypass the normal budgetary process.

Of the 225 amendments to the House defense authorization bill that McCaskill's staff reviewed, aides judged that 115 — totaling $834 million — were earmarks, based on several factors. These included how similar an amendment was to a previous earmark requested by the same lawmaker. To determine that, her staff reviewed the lawmaker's website and press releases, past defense bills and earmark databases maintained by government watchdog groups.

The report found that 75 of the alleged earmarks belonged to Democratic members of the House committee, who, unlike the Republicans, were not subject to a self-imposed ban. Republicans, meanwhile, contributed 40 of the alleged earmarks, including 20 from freshmen elected last fall.

McCaskill said in an interview that she found the number of freshman Republicans surprising because the 2010 election, she said, "was supposed to be about reckless spending, shutting down the favor factory and no business as usual in Washington."

As I've said before, I have no real objection to pork, the gaining of funds for a project to benefit a representative's district. That's part of the deal when we send critters to congress: they represent us and our interests. What I object to is the sneaking in of such pork at virtually the last minute without review by the budget committees and without debate. Most representatives aren't even aware of the existence of the earmarks at the time they actually vote on the bill. That's a bad practice, especially when trimming down the budget is supposed to be such an important thing to do.

I will say this: I'm impressed at how quickly the Tea Party freshmen learned the ropes. In other words, no change here.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I've been hit with some kind of fell winter bug. My head hurts, my chest hurts, I have a dry cough so my ribs hurt, plus I'm running a low grade fever. I am, therefore, justifiably cranky, which makes it a bad time for me to read a Los Angeles Times editorial. I am now absolutely enraged, not by the editorial stance (the center-left editorial board got it so right than I am staggered and would be pleased with them if I felt better), but by the information contained in that editorial.

When Congress enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it did so in the hope of curbing sexual assaults in facilities across the country. But today, with new rules to protect prisoners being finalized, the Department of Homeland Security is demanding that immigrants held in detention centers be exempted. ...

...the Department of Homeland Security is now squabbling over whether it or the Department of Justice has the authority to write rules that protect immigrants.

Isn't it obvious that protecting detainees is more important than who is the boss of whom? Detained immigrants are just as vulnerable to assault as any other prisoners, yet they're especially reluctant to report it. Unlike criminal defendants, detainees have no right to a court-appointed lawyer; that means they're often left with no advocate they can turn to. They are held in remote facilities, often far from legal clinics and family. And language creates an additional barrier to reporting abuse.
[Emphasis added]

Homeland Security and Justice are in a freaking turf war over this issue? And their boss, the President of the United States is letting this happen? Is there no one in charge over there? Are there no adults present at that end of town?


Here's the editorial's conclusion:

Rape is a crime. To apply the new regulations to some and not others would create a two-tier system of justice. That's not acceptable. Immigrants who are detained while they fight deportation (and who, by the way, have not generally been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime) deserve the same protections provided to criminals sentenced to maximum-security prisons.


Now, somebody needs to take Janet Napolitano and Eric Holder to the woodshed and read them the editorial, after which they should apply a mackerel to both of their heads and shoulders with great force.


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Monday, December 12, 2011

Look Up

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on the potential use of drones by our local police departments as if it were a future concern. Well, the future is now, accoridng to this STrib article. I'm going to quote extensively from the article because each of the facts is important.

Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm on June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.

Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three counties. He also called in a Predator B drone.

As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead, its sensors helped pinpoint the suspects, showing they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare ...

The drones belong to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates eight Predators on the country's borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate. ...

That was just the start. Police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since then. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.
[Emphasis added]

First, not only were the drones used by the local police, it was not the first time they were called into play. The aircraft, ostensibly to be used for border protection, is being used for regular local police investigations and busts. As far as I can tell, this issue has not been reported nor openly discussed with the public.

Yes, in this case it was a highly efficient tool and probably saved a lot man hours, but the use of these high tech and arms capable aircraft is still a troubling matter.

Michael Kostelnik, a retired Air Force general who heads the office that supervises the drones, said Predators are flown "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."

But former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work. Using Predators for routine law enforcement without public debate or clear legal authority is a mistake, Harman said.
[Emphasis added]

A mistake, indeed.

It goes against the grain of the Fourth Amendment by making all of out-of-doors fair game for surveillance of civilians without a warrant. There is also the question of it being a violation of the Posse Comitatus law which forbids the military from engaging in police activities on American soil. Congress defeated the use of military satellites for such activities on that basis and an argument can be made that the use of the drones for such purposes is similar.

What is so discouraging and so frightening is that this is being done in near-secret. No public discussion, no congressional debate, just being done and reported on after the fact and belatedly. That in and of itself smells bad.

In fact, the whole thing stinks.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Robert Frost

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

--Robert Frost

Is It Newt's Turn?

I considered waiting until this morning for my weekly visit to Watching America. I usually drop by on Saturday afternoon, but I also had been invited to a birthday party in the late afternoon which I really wanted to attend. In the end, routine won out. Fortunately I found just the article I wanted very quickly, leaving me plenty of time to help a 6-year-old celebrate.

From Germany's Die Zeit:

And now Gingrich is climbing in the Republican popularity scale. Of all people, the dubious Newt Gingrich, who has changed his political hat more often than Romney — who in blind zealousness wanted to overthrow Democratic President Bill Clinton on account of a false statement in the sex affair with Monica Lewinski, but who secretly committed adultery himself. Like hardly any other, Gingrich is the epitome of political doublespeak and double standards. [Emphasis added]

The writer appears to be as shocked and amazed as many of us here in the US. Who'd have thought that the party which goes on and on and on about family values would ever consider a serial adulterer to lead the nation. Stunning, absolutely stunning, especially when the candidate is casting himself as a "Washington outsider" come to save the country from the evil special interests of unions, socialists, and poor people.

In the '90s, Gingrich helped to break the decades-long majority in Congress. He was a hard-nosed fighter and the archenemy of all on the left. Along with ex-President Reagan, Gingrich is considered the trailblazer of the long-standing conservative hegemony. As speaker of the House of Representatives, he extracted painful compromises from Bill Clinton and the Democrats. The austerity policy of the time, the cuts in the welfare system and a balanced budget, are to his credit.

Party members alone make the decision about the Republican presidential candidate — primarily, the dyed-in-the-wool and staunch. They traditionally think more conservatively than the party as a whole and, in any case, more so than the [average] American voter.

This faction of the Republicans desperately seeks a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who is at the same time anti-Romney and anti-Obama. They first held hope for the staunch ideologue Michele Bachmann, then the Texan, Rick Perry, and finally Herman Cain. Now they turn to Newt Gingrich.

While that second paragraph is a little garbled (possibly because of translation difficulties), I read it as referring to the party's base, especially those who have embraced the Tea Party Rebellion. For that reason, given Newt's life after leaving the House of Representatives, particularly his job as a consultant for the feds for which he was paid over a million dollars, it's hard to imagine viewing him as Mr. Outsider and Anti-Government Crusader. And yet, right now, they apparently do. Their dislike of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama runs that deeply.

The party regulars, those who flinched when Gingrich proposed repealing child labor laws so that school children could replace school janitors in cleaning lavatories and grounds and who dropped their jaws at his statement that Palestinians are an "invented" people, must be getting awfully nervous at this stage, especially since Newt refused to back down on either point and even defended the latter at last night's debate. The Iowa caucuses are only a few weeks away, with the New Hampshire primary shortly thereafter. Newt could conceivably win both.

The Germans clearly think we're nuts. And they just might be right.


Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich and published 12/8/11 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: Giant Weta

(Photo by Mark Moffett and published at Daily Mail. Click on the link to learn more about this interesting giant. Via Time Goes By.)

Herding Cats

Here we are, coming up on the end of the year, and Congress has yet to pass the extension of the payroll tax holiday. You'd think that eleven months before an election passage of such a bill would be a slam dunk, but you'd be wrong. Who's behind the failure to get the bill passed? The Republicans, or at least some of them.

The stated reason for the refusal of some Republicans to back the bill is that it is "fiscally irresponsible." The real reason, one suspects, is that the bill requires the shortfall to be paid for by an accompanying tax on higher earners. For whatever reason, if the bill isn't passed by the end of the month (and the Christmas recess is looming), it will cost members of the middle class about $1,000 next year. Republican congressional leaders are clearly worried about that, but they are having difficulty getting their members in line.

Typically it's the GOP that operates from a singular playbook, particularly on tax policy: Republicans want lower taxes, while Democrats tend to hold a variety of positions when it comes to taxes and economic issues. But the payroll tax debate has left congressional Republicans arguing among themselves.

The GOP disagreements are multiple: They don't think that the break, which lowered the payroll tax from 6.2% to 4.2%, would help job growth next year. They also say it would harm the retirement system, despite claims by the chief actuary, who said it would have no effect. The trust fund would be replenished through spending cuts or, under the Democrats' plan, by taxing incomes greater than $1 million a year.

Then there are Republicans who just do not want to give the president a victory, calling it "Obama's tax cut."

The fact that Flake, like many of his GOP colleagues, backed the George W. Bush administration's tax cuts for high-income earners in 2001 and 2003 but opposes the payroll tax cut provides an opening for Democrats to level accusations of hypocrisy. In 2010, Flake voted against a legislative package that extended the Bush-era cuts and instituted the payroll tax holiday.

So, heading into the 2012 election year, the GOP is about to hand Democrats a very nice Christmas present. Democrats will be able to point to the fiasco and blame it on Republicans who didn't want to help out the middle class.

What a refreshing change.


Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

(Originally published at Presto Change-0, a blog you should visit regularly for cat pics.)

Granny Bird Award: RehabCare Group Inc.

Unfortunately, it's time for another Granny Bird Award, given from time to time to those who make it a point to harm elders in some egregious way. This time it goes to a fraudster, someone bilking our system.

Intervening in a lawsuit by a Minnesota whistleblower, the U.S. Justice Department has sued a large health care company based in Kentucky, alleging that it paid more than $10 million in kickbacks for access to Medicare and Medicaid patients living in a chain of nursing homes.

In a civil complaint filed in Minneapolis, the U.S. attorney said RehabCare Group Inc. began making illicit payments in 2006 as part of a deal with Missouri businessmen who owned 62 nursing homes in their state and an in-house company that provided health services to the residents. The deal was premised on RehabCare's plan to take control of the services and expand billings under Medicare and Medicaid, the complaint said.

"The suggestion was straightforward: Facilities that contracted with RehabCare could expect [it to] provide more therapy to the facilities' beneficiaries, and as a result, the facilities would make more money,'' said the complaint filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Blumenfield.

The recipient of the alleged kickbacks, Rehab Systems of Missouri LLC (RSM), received an initial $600,000 payment and a cut of more than 10 percent of RehabCare's ongoing billings, which have exceeded $70 million since 2006, the suit said.

The litigation is based on a federal anti-kickback law that makes it illegal to pay others for referrals of Medicare patients. Patients are supposed to receive services based on their medical needs, not as a result of financial inducements paid to their health care providers. The lawsuit seeks fines and financial recoveries.
[Emphasis added]

$70 million, much of it for unnecessary treatment. That's a lot of money flowing out of our system. Fortunately, a whistleblower stepped up and reported the scam. We can't, however, always count on some honest soul to do the reporting in each case. Those of us who receive Medicare have a role to play as well.

First of all, we need to remember to guard our Medicare card and our policy number. People offering us a free lunch so that they can offer us some "free tests" don't need either.

Second of all, Medicare sends out regular reports with itemizations of billings they have received for our accounts. We need to read those reports as soon as they arrive and not just toss them as junk mail. If an item appears that doesn't seem right to you, such as a motorized wheelchair when you don't need any such assistance or a diagnostic test you never received, notify Medicare immediately by phone (or on their web site). Medicare adjusters will look into it, and if they see a pattern of such abuse from a provider, they will report it to the Department of Justice.

Third, Congress and the White House keep looking for ways to cut the cost of Medicare. You might let both know that one way to contain costs is to go after Medicare Fraud and to go after it hard. If it means giving more funding to the DOJ, then so be it. The system could save millions every year just by prosecuting and fining these con artists, far beyond what it might cost to fund a special unit to do the work.

We really do need to start making some noise, especially these days.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Politics As Usual

Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, has over-ruled the FDA in making "Plan B" pills available to women under the age of 17 without a prescription.

For the first time ever, the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, refusing Wednesday to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over the counter, including to young teenagers. The decision avoided what could have been a bruising political battle over parental control and contraception during a presidential election season. [Emphasis added]

This moves comes from an administration that promised in 2008 to stop ignoring science in favor of political expediency. That Plan B has been demonstrated to halve pregnancy if used properly apparently doesn't matter to Barack Obama when an election campaign is underway. That Plan B would obviate the need for abortion doesn't either. Rather than acknowledge that women under 17 just might be having sex (consensual or not), Mr. Obama would rather avoid the battle.

What is so particularly disturbing is the effect this political calculation will have particularly on younger women, according to medical experts:

Several major medical groups reacted swiftly Wednesday to denounce the federal government's decision to limit over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptives for younger teens. ...

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine and American Society for Reproductive Medicine said Sebelius made the wrong call.

“As advocates for the health and well-being of all young people, the AAP recommends that adolescents postpone sexual activity until they are fully ready for the emotional, physical and financial consequences of sex,” said Dr. Robert Block, AAP president. “However, as physicians who care for our nation’s children, it is our responsibility to protect the health of our teenage patients, and an unintended pregnancy can have significant implications for adolescents’ physical and emotional health.” ...

The ASRM issued a statement from Dolores J. Lamb, the organization's president, that said in part: "We are very disappointed that Secretary Sebelius opted to insert herself into what should be a scientific decision made by the experts at FDA. The data are clear that emergency contraception can be safely used by adolescent women without requiring a prescription. Sadly, it appears that once again our leaders are putting political expediency ahead of reproductive health."
[Emphasis added]

I guess some things are just more important than the health of women of any age, but particularly younger women. Things like four more years of power, four more years of doing the non-controversial, four more years of taking the easy path rather than the right one.

So much for change.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Elder Belle's Blessing: County Of Los Angeles

(Photo by Patrice Carlton and published at National Geographic.)

It occurred to me yesterday that I should balance out the Granny Bird Award which flips off those who act in a way detrimental to elders with an award for those who enhance the health and well-being of elders. Like the Granny Bird Award, Elder Belle's Blessing will appear from time to time, whenever I come across something which clearly deserves it. Please feel free to nominate recipients (with a link, if possible) in comments.

The inaugural blessing goes to the County of Los Angeles for its grants to local senior centers to provide low-cost meals to elders. I've been to one at the Arcadia Senior Center, and have been advised that Temple City also has such a program. I'm sure there are others all over the county.

The process is really quite simple. The meals are served weekdays (except holidays) and monthly menus are available. Elders call and make reservations ahead of time. Payment is made upon arrival: in the case of Arcadia the charge is $2 for elders and the disabled. I would assume that is standard.

The meals themselves are quite hearty. On the day I went with my neighbor, we had roast beef, a baked potato, a salad made from steamed zucchini and summer squash, corn, and tomatoes with a vinaigrette dressing, a dinner roll and butter, a small carton of low-fat milk, a small carton of apple juice, and jello. It was more food than I could consume.

A glance at the December menu shows comparable meals, but they are varied, including Mexican dishes, Asian dishes, and even a Polish dish. Desserts are simple, usually fruit, with occasional cookies, pudding, and ice cream. The goal is to provide the elders with at least one substantial and nutritious meal per day. For elders living alone or with just a spouse, cooking often feels like more trouble than it's worth, one of the real hazards facing us as we grow older and our families have left to go out on their own.

But that's not the only goal: it's an opportunity for elders to get out and socialize. The meals are eaten at large tables (8 to 12 at each), and the conversations are lively. Current affairs, sports, fishing lures, movies/television programs: those all got hashed out at my table.

This is a wonderful program, one that I intend to avail myself of frequently. I just hope the County can keep it running. Like all governments at all levels, the county budget is strained. If I dug into it further (and I might), I would imagine I'd find that the County has a state grant dependent on a federal grant. And this is the kind of program which would be an easy target for the dolts in Congress. We need to keep an eye on that.

At any rate, well done, County of Los Angeles.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Not Just The Poorest Of The Poor Neighborhoods

Newt Gingrich raised howls of protest for his comments on putting kids from poor neighborhoods to work cleaning their schools (see my post here). I wonder what he'll have to say with about the news contained in this article coming from the Midwest.

More Minnesota students are signing on for free or reduced-price meals, as middle-class families coping with cutbacks and foreclosures are becoming first-time users of the subsidized National School Lunch Program.

Reflecting a surge seen nationally, nearly 33,000 Minnesota kids have joined the program in the past two years. Nationwide, student poverty rose from 59.3 percent in 2007 to 65.3 percent in 2010.

"Middle-class families who never thought they'd be dealing with this kind of hardship and poverty are now having to face it," said University of Minnesota economics Prof. Ben Senauer, who's researched several metro-area school districts' school lunch data. "This is the new face of poverty."
[Emphasis added]

It isn't just the "poorest of the poor" urban areas that need help. Job losses have affected the suburbs and even the fancy exurbs. People who never dreamed they'd have trouble feeding their families are now signing up for the lunch program so that their children get at least one meal a day during the week. Some schools, on their own initiative, also provide backpacks to the kids on Fridays so that they get some nutrition over the weekend.

"This is the new face of poverty."


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Monday, December 05, 2011

The Shrill One Is Shrill

I consider Paul Krugman a national treasure. A recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics, Mr. Krugman has a regular column with the New York Times. His columns are frequently about economics, but just as frequently about politics as informed by economics. His latest effort falls into the latter category, and he takes no prisoners.

Think about what it takes to be a viable Republican candidate today. You have to denounce Big Government and high taxes without alienating the older voters who were the key to G.O.P. victories last year — and who, even as they declare their hatred of government, will balk at any hint of cuts to Social Security and Medicare (death panels!).

And you also have to denounce President Obama, who enacted a Republican-designed health reform and killed Osama bin Laden, as a radical socialist who is undermining American security.

So what kind of politician can meet these basic G.O.P. requirements? There are only two ways to make the cut: to be totally cynical or to be totally clueless.
[Emphasis added]

Mitt Romney is Krugman's example of the cynical politician. He notes that the Republican voter is perfectly aware of that cynicism: after all, the Massachusetts health care plan enacted while Romney was governor is pretty much the basis for what conservatives call "Obama-care." Yet Romney denies that and claims that the ACA represents a huge government intrusion into the lives of Americans. He knows that the budget deficit will not go away without cutting defense spending, yet he urges we continue stuffing hefty morsels into that insatiable maw. This isn't flip-flopping, it's pandering and the GOP's base knows it.

Krugman relegates the rest of the current candidates to the "clueless" category, and after listening to several of the debates I would have to agree. How else would you describe Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and, yes, even Newt Gingrich, a man Krugman suggests actually believes what he is saying while he is saying it.

So, what happens next? Krugman paints a bleak picture:

The larger point, however, is that whoever finally gets the Republican nomination will be a deeply flawed candidate. And these flaws won’t be an accident, the result of bad luck regarding who chose to make a run this time around; the fact that the party is committed to demonstrably false beliefs means that only fakers or the befuddled can get through the selection process.

Of course, given the terrible economic picture and the tendency of voters to blame whoever holds the White House for bad times, even a deeply flawed G.O.P. nominee might very well win the presidency. But then what?

Here's where Paul Krugman and I have a minor point of disagreement. I don't think the party rulers really expect to win, nor do they necessarily want to. I think that just like 2008 the GOP figures it will lose and is willing to burn a few pesky Republican candidates, the ones who insist that it's their "turn" to lead the party, rather than risk a loss by a really viable standard bearer like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie. Besides, the conservatives have gotten all they've wanted from the current occupant of the White House. If the party works it right, the Senate will fall into Republican hands, thereby ensuring conservative gains for the next four to twelve years.

Libby Spencer has yet a different scenario She thinks a brokered convention will tap Christie as a unifying candidate. I have to admit that this also is plausible.

But regardless of who's right, the 99% are in for a really rocky road.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sunday Poetry: Marge Piercy

(Because it appears we all could do with a little pep talk.)

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

Just Average

If the current slate of articles up at Watching America is any indication, the rest of the world is just as edgy as we are when it comes to the US economy and its role in the world economy. That of course is no surprise. A few articles, however, looked at what this means in terms of US foreign policy, and at least one focused on President Obama's leadership in that regard. He didn't get such a high grade.

At the end of the third year of his presidency, Obama is at best one of those average presidents who govern the White House time and time again. He even ranks among those who were below average, a fact that is reflected in poll results. His poll rankings are bad, so bad that he must fear for his re-election — even though the Republicans until now have only been able to summon up laughingstocks instead of true campaign rivals. ...

It almost appears that Obama, the Democrat, is conducting a form of recessive foreign policy that one would associate with “America-first” Republicans. Presumably, this is not a precept of the Obama administration, but rather one that operates according to the motto: “Let’s see what the next day brings.” This motto fits a president who does not govern very effectively but rather nonchalantly.

Ouch! That's got to leave a mark.

Unfortunately, that's a pretty accurate description of the last three years in terms of both US foreign and domestic policy. I admit that part of the disappointment can be attributed to the high hopes the entire world had for the new president. His campaign speeches spoke to a profound change, and given the disastrous eight years of the Bush administration, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The world even awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he barely warmed the chair in the Oval Office in anticipation of a brilliant new era in the US. Expectations were high, even though the circumstances he inherited were daunting.

Even given the unrealistic high hopes, however, Obama's leadership, or rather his lack of leadership, has turned out to be disappointing. Instead of profound change, we've gotten more of the same policies, and even worse, an enhancement of those policies. Yes, Obama has had to deal with the obstructionist behavior of the Republicans in Congress, but he has responded to that challenge by simply shrugging his shoulders and giving in.

We're hearing stronger speeches from the White House these days as the election campaign starts heating up. The president is pushing for his jobs bill (too little, too late) and payroll tax reductions (which underfunds Social Security), but the electorate has heard it before, primarily in 2008. Our memories aren't that short. He might win re-election, but if he does it will be because the Republicans can't come up with a viable candidate. Why should they? They've done just fine with close facsimile of one currently occupying the post.

Either/or, it's going to be another long and painful four years at best.

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Sunday Funnies

(Editorial cartoon by Joel Pett / Lexington Herald-Leader (November 29, 2011) and featured at McClatchy DC. Click on image to enlarge.)


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Bonus Critter Blogging: African Wild Dog

(Photograph by Chris Johns and published at National Geographic.)

Another Cagey Move

This article has been bugging me for several days. It's about Pfizer and that pharmaceutical company's plan to keep sales up for its blockbuster drug Lipitor which came off patent protection this week. At first reading, the article appeared to contain some unalloyed good news for consumers.

Lipitor is so valuable that Pfizer is practically paying people to keep taking its blockbuster cholesterol medicine after generic competition hits the U.S. market this week.

Pfizer has devised discounts and incentives for patients, insurers and companies that process prescriptions that will, at least for the next six months, make the brand name drug about as cheap as or cheaper than the generics. Pfizer also has spent tens of millions of dollars this year on marketing to keep patients on Lipitor, which loses patent protection Wednesday.

Here's a brief summary of this "marketing plan":

—Offering insured patients a discount card to get Lipitor for $4 a month, far below the $25 average copayment for a preferred brand-name drug and below the $10 average copay for a generic drug. Pfizer is promoting this heavily through ads, information distributed at doctors' offices and its site. Pfizer, based in New York, said Tuesday that sign-ups have exceeded its goals.

—Paying pharmacies to mail Lipitor patients offers for the $4 copay card and to counsel patients that Lipitor lowers bad cholesterol more than rival drugs and helps prevent heart attacks and strokes.

—Keeping U.S. marketing spending nearly level until the last minute, versus the typical two-thirds drop in a drug's final year under patent. From July through September, Pfizer spent almost $90 million on doctor sales calls and free samples, about the same as a year earlier, according to Cegedim Strategic Data. Ads targeting patients fell about 60 percent to $19 million. All that will soon taper off.

—Negotiating unusual deals with some insurance plans and prescription benefit managers, the companies that process prescription claims for insurers or employers, to block pharmacists from dispensing generic Lipitor. Pfizer is giving them rebates that bring their cost for Lipitor down to the price of a generic or slightly less — if they agree to dispense only Lipitor for the six months before additional generic competition slashes prices. The move has generated some controversy and means many of the 3 million Americans taking Lipitor won't be able switch to the generic.
[Emphasis added]

So, what's the problem? For the next six months, patients will have the benefit of much lower costs for the drug and insurers (including Medicare) will have to pay less as well. Surely this is a good thing, isn't it?

Well, yes. At least for six months. Sort of. This time.

Keep in mind that Pfizer has already made its nut on this drug, which indeed has been very successful at lowering cholesterol. Now it's pretty much all gravy, a gravy that is still pouring billions of dollars into the company. Pfizer wants even more of that gravy. This time, and the next time with the next blockbuster drug. And, as a result there are some losers in this deal.

Meanwhile, Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. looks to be the biggest loser in this. It has a deal to distribute an "authorized generic" version manufactured by Pfizer but sold under Watson's brand, with Pfizer keeping an estimated 70 percent of the price.

Watson CEO Paul Bisaro said he had thought Pfizer would retain about 25 percent of Lipitor users for the next six months, but now "it looks like it will be 40 to 45 percent."

Bisaro said that could reduce his company's anticipated profit next year.
. [Emphasis added]

So much for honor among thieves, eh? Pfizer makes a deal with Watson to give them access to the formula for a price, and then queers the deal by undercutting Watson's opportunity to make some money on the "authorized" generic. And that's what makes me uneasy.

If Watson had known that Pfizer was going to institute this marketing plan, would the generic company have cut the same deal? That's unlikely. What's the incentive? Indeed, and here's the crucial point, what's the incentive for other company's to jump into the generic market after a patent expires? They won't make any money for another six months at least, and that's a long time in terms of business plans.

In other words, why even bother with manufacturing and marketing generic drugs?

I think this is actually a rather ingenious move by Pfizer to freeze out generic drugs from the market place. With them gone, there would be no reason to lower the prices on the patented drug as Pfizer has done this time. Soon, even that will be unnecessary, and patients and insurers will be stuck with the full price.

Pretty cagey, that.

And, once again, we lose.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday Cat Blogging

(Click to enlarge.)

Are There No Work Houses?

So, it's Newt Gingrich's turn to challenge Mitt Romney for the 2012 GOP nomination. I had a hunch this was going to happen almost as soon as he announced he would be a candidate. I knew that he would run an unconventional campaign, but I figured he would be just the one to at least make things fun, although I certainly didn't think he would pull ahead at a crucial time. After all, serious candidates don't take a luxury vacation cruise around Greece in the middle of a race, thereby angering his senior staff enough to walk out on him. But he's pulled it off.

Newt hasn't changed much over the years (beyond putting more weight on). He still makes statements that make Republicans cringe. For example, at a recent debate he suggested that a more humane approach to immigration was in order and that the defense budget could be cut to eliminate some of the waste (see my post here). Most of the post debate coverage focused on those statements, which couldn't have made party regulars very happy.

More recently, he used child labor laws as an example of federal regulations running amok. Yes, child labor laws. He suggested little kids could replace expensive school janitors by mopping the floors and cleaning the rest rooms and being paid a little money, thereby gaining valuable work and life experience. Pretty radical stuff, that.

Yesterday he went even further in clarifying those remarks, and even I suffered a little whiplash at his audacity.

"Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and nobody around them who works," Gingrich replied. "So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of 'I do this and you give me cash,' unless it's illegal."

As I thought about it a little, however, it occurred to me that such a statement was audacious only because Newt said out loud what a lot of Republicans, especially the 1% and those who worship them, believe. The poor are poor because they are lazy and won't work. They get their money through crime. They do not provide good role models for their children and so the poverty and the life of crime are perpetuated.

The fact that those premises are simply not true and are unwarranted doesn't matter. What matters is lowering taxes by throwing adults out of work and paying their children pennies for doing the same job. What matters is that those at the bottom of the ladder stay there even though more and more Americans are beginning to join them.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Scrooge.

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