Archive for November 2008
As banks lure depositors with higher interest rates, PNC Financial Services (PNC) says it is attracting 130 new customers a day to an account that pays only mediocre returns. And look who’s signing up: the finicky members of Generation Y.
The online product is called “Virtual Wallet.” What it lacks in generous terms it makes up for in user-friendliness. Virtual Wallet is three accounts—trendily dubbed “Spend,” “Reserve,” and “Growth”—linked together with a slick personal finance tool. The offering is part of Pittsburgh-based PNC’s strategy to grab the next generation of banking customers as they start to shop for home loans and brokerage accounts. But Virtual Wallet is helping in the short term, too. PNC President Joseph C. Guyaux says customers carry above-average balances.
In early 2007, PNC hired IDEO, the Palo Alto (Calif.) design consultancy, to study Gen Y (which PNC defined as people aged 18-34) and help formulate a plan. The research turned up two things: …
Aaron Glantz, who covered the U.S. occupation of Iraq in his 2006 book, How America Lost Iraq, has written a new book that focuses on the government’s neglect of returning soldiers. Titled The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle against America’s Veterans, it has been praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a breathtaking rebuke to government hypocrisy and an overdue contribution to gaining critical public awareness of this official neglect. Glantz … offers a thorough account of the plight U.S. vets face back home — from the understaffed Veterans Administration perversely geared to saving money at the expense of vets in dire need of help, to concomitant medical and social ills, including undiagnosed brain injuries and the too frequent perils of homelessness, crime and suicide. There is also grassroots resistance and mutual aid, including the eventual passage of the post 9/11 GI Bill of Rights in May 2008, fiercely opposed by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress (including John McCain). Glantz fleshes out his narrative with the voices and powerful stories of vets, their families and advocates, while helpfully including a host of resources and services for veterans.” Glantz also edited another recent book that focuses on soldiers’ experiences in their own words, titled Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations.
In a Washington Post op-ed today, a former Special Operations interrogator who worked in Iraq in 2006 sharply criticizes American torture techniques as ineffective and dangerous. “Torture and abuse cost American lives,” he writes:
I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. … It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.
The writer, who used a pseudonym for the article, adds that when he switched his team’s techniques to a rapport-building method, they found enormous success. One detainee told the author, “I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.”
Update: The author, who is writing a book on his experiences as an interrogator, notes that the Pentagon tried to redact non-classified information and block parts of his book. “Apparently, some members of the military command are not only unconvinced by the arguments against torture; they don’t even want the public to hear them,” he writes.
Conservative Andrew Sullivan has a strong article against torture. Written three years ago, it begins:
Why is torture wrong? It may seem like an obvious question, or even one beneath discussion. But it is now inescapably before us, with the introduction of the McCain Amendment banning all “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” of detainees by American soldiers and CIA operatives anywhere in the world. The amendment lies in legislative limbo. It passed the Senate in October by a vote of 90 to nine, but President Bush has vowed to veto any such blanket ban on torture or abuse; Vice President Cheney has prevailed upon enough senators and congressmen to prevent the amendment–and the defense appropriations bill to which it is attached–from moving out of conference; and my friend Charles Krauthammer, one of the most respected conservative intellectuals in Washington (and a New Republic contributing editor) has written a widely praised cover essay for The Weekly Standard endorsing the legalization of full-fledged torture by the United States under strictly curtailed conditions. We stand on the brink of an enormously important choice–one that is critical, morally as well as strategically, to get right.
The Labor Department is attempting to complete a rule which “would add a step to the lengthy process of developing standards to protect workers’ health” and would thus make it more difficult to regulate toxic substances and chemicals that affect workers on the job. The New York Times notes that this proposal may violate the White House’s own memorandum:
The timing of the proposal appears to violate a memorandum issued in early May by Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff. “Except in extraordinary circumstances,” Mr. Bolten wrote, “regulations to be finalized in this administration should be proposed no later than June 1, 2008, and final regulations should be issued no later than Nov. 1, 2008.”
The proposal is “one of about 20 highly contentious rules the Bush administration is planning to issue in its final weeks,” the Times notes. For more on Bush’s last-minute regulations and proposals, read ThinkProgress’s report, “Bush’s Backward Sprint To The Finish.”
Interesting thesis propounded by Neal Gabler. He begins:
Ever since the election, partisans within the Republican Party and observers outside it have been speculating wildly about what direction the GOP will take to revive itself from its disaster. Or, more specifically, which wing of the party will prevail in setting the new Republican course — whether it will be what conservative writer Kathleen Parker has called the “evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy” branch or the more pragmatic, intellectual, centrist branch. To determine the answer, it helps to understand exactly how Republicans arrived at this spot in the first place.
The creation myth of modern conservatism usually begins with Barry Goldwater, the Arizona senator who was the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1964 and who, even though he lost in one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history, nevertheless wrested the party from its Eastern establishment wing. Then, Richard Nixon co-opted conservatism, talking like a conservative while governing like a moderate, and drawing the opprobrium of true believers. But Ronald Reagan embraced it wholeheartedly, becoming the patron saint of conservatism and making it the dominant ideology in the country. George W. Bush picked up Reagan’s fallen standard and “conservatized” government even more thoroughly than Reagan had, cheering conservatives until his presidency came crashing down around him. That’s how the story goes.
But there is another rendition of the story of modern conservatism, one that doesn’t begin with Goldwater and doesn’t celebrate his libertarian orientation. It is a less heroic story, and one that may go a much longer way toward really explaining the Republican Party’s past electoral fortunes and its future. In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.
The basic problem with the Goldwater tale is that it focuses on ideology and movement building, which few voters have ever really cared about, while the McCarthy tale focuses on electoral strategy, which is where Republicans have excelled.
McCarthy, Wisconsin’s junior senator, was the man who first energized conservatism and made it a force to reckon with. When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman’s State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as “Mister Conservative.” Taft was no flamethrower. Though he was an isolationist and a vehement opponent of FDR, he supported America’s involvement in the war after Pearl Harbor and had even grudgingly come to accept the basic institutions of the New Deal. He was also no winner. He had contested and lost the Republican presidential nomination to Wendell Willkie in 1940, Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, three men who were regarded as much more moderate than he.
McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology — and he was no ideologue at all — he made up for in …
I cook spelt and kamut frequently—and I’ve found that it cooks better with overnight soaking. I’ve also had farro, though not lately. But the two—spelt and farro—are not at all the same:
The New Year’s Eve dinner party in question has since gone down in our family annals as the Night of the Great Spelt Screw-Up. We were making, or intending to make, farro, an ancient wheat variety that can be cooked risotto-style with broth, butter and Parmesan. Unfortunately there was no farro to be found at the nearby Whole Foods. Blinded by a flash of substitution brilliance, I bought two pounds of spelt from the dry-goods aisle, recalling that I’d heard somewhere that farro was the fancy Italian word for the far-less-fancy-sounding “spelt.”
Spelt, to my eye, didn’t look like farro, and from a stovetop behavioral standpoint, it quickly distinguished itself. In a panic I called my personal farro expert, Jennifer DeVore, explaining I couldn’t find farro so instead I bought. . . . “Oh, no,” she interrupted. “You didn’t buy spelt.” Farro cooks in about 45 minutes; we cooked our spelt for four hours, and even then the result was extremely al dente. We threw in multiple sticks of butter, gallons of stock and $13 worth of grated Parmesan, but the spelt remained stoically flavor-impervious. We served it anyway. Contrary to the claims of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century spelt enthusiast, our guests did not find that eating it “makes the spirit of man light and cheerful.” …
Worth downloading if philosophy’s your thing. From the link:
These lecture notes have been developed over many years and draw on material presented by Alan Code in his Introduction to Ancient Philosophy course given at UC-Berkeley in the 1980s when I served as his Teaching Assistant. Prof. Code has granted permission for use of the material which is, at this point, integrated throughout the notes.
Here’s one example:
Why Be Moral? — Republic I-II (PDF)
I haven’t talked much about chess, though I was an enthusiast (of no great strength) for years. Here’s a good list of chess sites.
And to close off the month, one more interview.
Kevin Drum has a good post this morning:
Joe Romm passes along the news today that Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than anyone has previously predicted. You can add this to Romm’s list of other climate change impacts that are happening faster than most climate models predict, including the canonical IPCC models:
- “The recent [Arctic] sea-ice retreat is larger than in any of the (19) IPCC [climate] models” [PDF] — and that was a Norwegian expert in 2005. The retreat has accelerated in the past two years.
- The ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of schedule.” That was Penn State climatologist Richard Alley in March 2006. In 2001, the IPCC thought that neither Greenland nor Antarctica would lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are.
- Sea-level rise from 1993 and 2006 — 3.3 millimetres per year as measured by satellites — was higher than the IPCC climate models predicted.
- The ocean carbon sink is saturating sooner than expected.
- The subtropics are expanding faster than the models project.
This is why climate scientists have been running around with their hair on fire for the past couple of years. It would be nice to think that perhaps our current climate models are too pessimistic; or even that they’re right but maybe we’ll end up at the low end of the predicted warming ranges; or at worst that the models are right and we’ll end up right at the center. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. What it really looks like is that our current models aren’t pessimistic enough and that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is exceeding even the modelers’ highest estimates. We are fast approaching a point of no return that will likely kill hundreds of millions of people, destroy much of the world’s food supply, and spark resource wars that make Rwanda look like a mild family quarrel. More from Romm here and here on what’s happening and what to do about it.
And yet there still are those (like my commenter) who think that all the data are faked and that the whole thing is a fraud. I don’t think the future looks good. Skimping on science education turns out to have a high cost.
I posted recently about global warming and got a comment from a denier. His position was that all the scientists of the world have ganged up to commit fraud, and that in fact the Earth has been cooling since 2000. In looking for a response, I found this very nice site that lists common skeptic arguments and the science that undermines those arguments.
Turns out that help is available, as described in this article by Paul Raeburn in US News & World Report. It begins:
Timothy Stewart’s health insurance nightmare began in June of last year, when Tom, his 17-year-old stepson, complained of pain in his left leg. Doctors found a chondromyxoid fibroma, a rare benign tumor, on a bone of his lower leg. At the physicians’ urging, Stewart, who manages an RV park near Grand Teton National Park, took Tom from their home in Thayne, Wyo., to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City for care. Treatment was successful, generating a bill of roughly $13,000 for surgery and a one-night stay.
But the hospital was not in the network of Stewart’s healthcare insurer—which he doesn’t want to name because it still covers his family. The insurer paid the hospital only about $2,600 of the bill, asserting that this amount was the “reasonable and customary” charge. That left Stewart, 53, on the hook for more than $10,000. His formal appeal to the healthcare insurer was denied. The Wyoming insurance commissioner’s office offered only sympathy.
“I was at my wits’ end,” says Stewart. “I didn’t know what to do.” Turning to the Internet, he unearthed Trudy Whitehead, founder of Advantage Medical Bill Review in Salt Lake City and one of dozens of paid “medical billing advocates” who negotiate with healthcare providers and insurance companies to lower consumers’ medical bills. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of hospital and insurance billing practices, Whitehead went to bat for Stewart to negotiate a better deal.
Billing advocates have several lines of attack they can follow. They often uncover errors such as services that were billed but never delivered and single procedures billed multiple times, says Nora Johnson, vice president of Medical Billing Advocates of America in Salem, Va. They also have tools to determine typical payments to hospitals and physicians by Medicare and private insurers, which are lower than the amounts charged to out-of-network patients and even lower than the charges levied on patients with little or no insurance. And they can drill down to a hospital’s bottom-line cost for specific services, which tells them just how much wiggle room there is for jawboning inflated charges lower.
In Stewart’s case, the insurance company had told him that the $2,600 payment to Primary Children’s was double what Medicare typically would have paid for the procedure and therefore was a reasonable reimbursement for an out-of-state, out-of-network procedure. But Whitehead knew that was wrong. …
Glenn Greenwald has an excellent column dissecting the way that media talk about torture. It begins:
Yesterday, The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, in reporting on John Brennan’s withdrawal from consideration for a top intelligence post, wrote:
The opposition to Mr. Brennan had been largely confined to liberal blogs, and there was not an expectation he would face a particularly difficult confirmation process. Still, the episode shows that the C.I.A.’s secret detention program remains a particularly incendiary issue for the Democratic base, making it difficult for Mr. Obama to select someone for a top intelligence post who has played any role in the agency’s campaign against Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks.
I quoted that paragraph yesterday to show how the establishment media is acknowledging the role blogs played in this episode, prompting Billmon to materialize in the comment section and make this point:
Glenn should have noted the sly way that asshole Mazzetti slides from “the CIA’s secret detention program remains a particularly incendiary issue for the Democratic base” — because, of course, only those wacko lefties worry about war crimes — to the completely bogus assertion that said concerns have made it “difficult for Mr. Obama to select someone . . . who has played any role in the agency’s campaign against Al Qaeda since 9/11″ (emphasis mine).
So, according to the New Pravda (sometimes known as the New York Times) to criticize crimes against humanity is to oppose the entire campaign against the people responsible for 9/11. Dick Cheney couldn’t have put it better.
Now THAT’S some sleazy journalism we can believe in.
Digby noted the same passage and made a similar point: that to object to someone like Brennan — who advocated and defended the Bush administration’s rendition and “enhanced interrogation tactics” — is hardly the same as objecting to anyone who “played any role in the agency’s campaign against Al Qaeda.” And Andrew Sullivan made a related point about an AP article by Pamela Hess which contains this wretched sentence: “Obama’s advisers had grown increasingly concerned in recent days over Web logs that accused Brennan of condoning harsh interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, which critics call torture.” As Sullivan notes: “no sane person with any knowledge of the subject disputes the fact that waterboarding is and always has been torture. So why cannot the AP tell the truth?”
All of this underscores a crucial fact: a major reason why the Bush administration was able to break numerous laws in general, and subject detainees to illegal torture specifically, is because the media immediately mimicked the Orwellian methods adopted by the administration to speak about and obfuscate these matters. Objective propositions that were never in dispute and cannot be reasonably disputed were denied by the Bush administration, and — for that reason alone (one side says it’s true) — the media immediately depicted these objective facts as subject to reasonable dispute.
Hence: “war crimes” were transformed into “policy disputes” between hawkish defenders of the country and shrill, soft-on-terror liberals. “Torture” became “enhanced interrogation techniques which critics call torture.” And, most of all, flagrant lawbreaking — doing X when the law says: “X is a felony” — became acting “pursuant to robust theories of executive power” or “expansive interpretations of statutes and treaties” or, at worst, “in circumvention of legal frameworks.” …
Very interesting Scientific American article by Christof Koch, which begins:
What is consciousness? What is this ineffable, subjective stuff—this thing, substance, process, energy, soul, whatever—that you experience as the sounds and sights of life, as pain or as pleasure, as anger or as the nagging feeling at the back of your head that maybe you’re not meant for this job after all. The question of the nature of consciousness is at the heart of the ancient mind-body problem. How does subjective consciousness relate to the objective universe, to matter and energy?
Consciousness is the only way we experience the world. Without it, you would be like a sleepwalker in a deep, dreamless sleep, acting in the world, speaking, having babies, but without feeling anything. You would feel nothing, nada, nichts, rien. Indeed, in the most famous deduction of Western thought, philosopher and mathematician René Descartes concluded that because he was conscious he existed. That was his only unassailable proof that he wasn’t just a chimera. Maybe he didn’t have the body he thought he had, maybe he had fake memories (premonitions of The Matrix), but because he was conscious he must exist.
Eric Boehlert takes down the canard about autoworkers making $70/hour:
It’s been one week since New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote that at General Motors, “the average worker was paid about $70 an hour, including health care and pension costs.”
The nugget was part of a column in which Sorkin argued that the government should not bail out the ailing Big Three automakers and that they instead should embrace bankruptcy.
Sorkin’s point was that labor costs were out of control — workers enjoyed “gold-plated benefits” — and that during bankruptcy, the auto companies could address those runaway wages.
As I mentioned, it’s been one week since the column appeared, which seems like plenty of time for Sorkin and the Times to correct the misleading $70-an-hour claim. But to date, there’s been no clarification from the newspaper of record or from Sorkin himself.
And he isn’t alone. Appearing on NPR last week, Times senior business correspondent Micheline Maynard told listeners that the “hourly wage” of Detroit’s union autoworkers had been driven up “towards $80 an hour.”
Somebody at the Times needs to clarify the record, because the average United Auto Workers member is not paid $80 an hour. Or even $70. Not even close. Yet (thanks to the Times?) the issue has become a central talking point in the unfolding national debate about the future of America’s automotive industry.
You occasionally have folks speak truth to power, but you rarely have folks in power speak truth. The closest you get is folks who once had power speaking truth. You see it a lot with past presidential candidates, and in Israel you saw it in Ehud Olmert’s outgoing interview where he lambasted Israeli attitudes towards the peace process and its “megalomania” on security, and now you’re seeing it from former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo who has partnered with Brookings to publish a report calling the US drug war a total failure.
Contrary to government claims, the use of heroin and cocaine in the U.S. has not declined significantly, the report says, and the use of methamphetamine is spreading. Falling street prices suggest that the supply of narcotics has not declined noticeably, and U.S. prevention and treatment programs are woefully underfunded, the study says.
“Current U.S. counter- narcotics policies are failing by most objective standards,” the report says. “The only long-run solution to the problem of illegal narcotics is to reduce the demand for drugs in the major consuming countries, including the United States.
You can read the full report here. No one in power will listen, of course, because they all remain subject to the same forces that buffeted Zedillo during his presidency, and led him to keep his mouth shut on America’s insane drug war for the duration of his tenure.
Taking over public schools and running them for profit—that sounds like a terrible idea to me, but some like it. Sarah Knopp has an article on the situation, which begins:
In a stock market prospectus uncovered by education author Jonathan Kozol, the Montgomery Securities group explains to Corporate America the lure of privatizing education. Kozol writes:
“The education industry,” according to these analysts, “represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control” that have either voluntarily opened or, they note in pointed terms, have “been forced” to open up to private enterprise. Indeed, they write, “the education industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care services were privatized during the 1970’s…. From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “The K–12 market is the Big Enchilada.”1
The idea that our education system should serve the needs of the free market and even be run by private interests is not new. “Those parts of education,” wrote the economist Adam Smith in his famous 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations, “for the teaching of which there are not public institutions, are generally the best-taught.”2 More recently, Milton Friedman introduced the idea of market-driven education in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom. With the economic downturn of the early 1970s, Friedman’s ultra-right-wing free-market ideas would become guiding principles for the U.S. government and be forced onto states throughout the world. The push toward privatization and deregulation, two of the key tenets of what is known as neoliberalism, haven’t just privatized formerly public services; they have unabashedly channeled public money into private coffers. “Philanthropreneurs,”3 corporations, and ideologues are currently using charter schools to accomplish these goals in education. Friedman chose as his last battle before dying in 2006 to use his clout to push for the privatization of New Orleans’ public schools.4 He advocated for vouchers—government-funded certificates permitting parents to send their child to the school of their choice—but those who support his ideas have switched tracks slightly, pushing now for charter schools.
Wonderful article on the recount by Matt Taibbi. It begins:
On a Saturday in mid-November, Al Franken stands in front of a roomful of volunteers at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The former comedian and talk-show host knows that his campaign troops are fired up over the recount of his race to unseat the state’s Republican senator, Norm Coleman. The official tally ended in a virtual tie, with Coleman leading by only 215 votes out of 2.9 million ballots cast — a margin of seven-thousandth of one percent. To Franken’s campaign volunteers, it seems like Florida 2000 all over again.
The ballot recount, which is mandated by state law, is expected to last well into December — keeping painfully alive the already insanely protracted season of electoral combat between Democrats and Republicans. But rather than throwing red meat to the assembled volunteers, Franken is actually trying to calm them down. Walking back and forth, he leads them in a mock war chant that tweaks the old red-blue outrage:
“What do we want?” Franken shouts.
“PATIENCE!” the volunteers respond.
“When do we want it?” Franken asks.
“NOW!” the crowd demands.