Archive for September 2009
I find my attention wandering from politics: The Democrats have become Republicans, the Republicans have gone batshit crazy, and the entire edifice seems to be passing into the hands of business and industry. I’m keeping an eye on it, but my interest and heart are not in it right now.
Yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee voted down both the Rockefeller and Schumer amendments, which would have added a public insurance plan to the committee’s bill. As the Wall Street Journal reports, shares in health insurers Humana and UnitedHealth shot up following the votes:
Shares of companies that operate private health plans turned higher or trimmed losses in afternoon trading Tuesday after a Senate committee rejected an amendment that would have created a government-run insurance option. Humana Inc. (HUM) shares, which had been down earlier, were recently up 1% at $38.41. UnitedHealth Group Inc. (UNH) shares gained 3 cents to $25.83.
Private health insurers have bitterly fought the creation of a public insurance option, fearing that such an option would cut into their profits. Yesterday, Life And Health Insurance News reported that the insurance industry has responded positively to the defeat of the public option amendments. “We are pleased by the rejection of both the Rockefeller and Schumer amendments,” said Tom Currey, president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Janet Trautwein, president of the National Association of Health Underwriters, also told the press that her organization is pleased by the failure of the Schumer and Rockefeller amendments.
Meanwhile, disgraced former CEO of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Rick Scott, who heads the anti-reform front group Conservatives for Patients Rights, released a video where he called yesterday’s vote “a great day.”
If anyone knows how the insurance industry feels about protecting its profits from the introduction of a new public plan, it’s whistleblower Wendell Potter, who left Cigna last year over its opposition to health care reform. Potter appeared on Democracy Now! this morning and told host Amy Goodman that the Finance Committee advancing legislation without a public option marks the “first time” that a health reform bill has been put together that the industry supports:
POTTER: Yeah, this is the first time that the insurance industry has really seen great opportunity in healthcare reform, with an individual mandate, which would require all of us to buy insurance if we are not eligible for a public, government-run program, which, fortunately, many people are. We would have to buy it in the private market from insurance companies, many of whom—many of which are for-profit companies. … So billions and billions of taxpayers’ dollars will flow right into the treasuries of these big for-profit insurance companies. So we will be essentially paying a tax that will help support these insurance companies. It will be an enormous bailout of the health insurance industry.
Potter also told Goodman that while numerous members of Congress sought out his advice as they crafted health care legislation, “not once” did he ever hear from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-MT) office. He ended the interview by saying that there should be a debate about single-payer health care in the United States, and that he thinks “it will eventually take a social movement to get the kind of healthcare that we need in this country.”
I for one welcome our new industry overlords.
The Sister turned me on to The Engine 2 Diet, and I must say that what I’ve read so far has impressed me—and the recipes look good, too. The author is a triathlete and firefighter—meh—but he also comes from a family of doctors and knows quite a bit about science, medicine, and nutrition. And the way he tested the diet makes sense and gives good credibility. Check it out.
The sake I really like these days junmai ginjō nigori:
junmai: made from only rice, water and kōji, with no brewer’s alcohol or other additive
ginjō: made from rice polished to 60% or less of its original weight
nigori: cloudy sake: it’s passed through a loose mesh to separate it from the mash and isn’t filtered thereafter, so the bottle contains much rice sediment
I used to joke about wines whose labels bore the legend “WARNING: Serve chilled!”. I never conceived of wines whose labels would advise “Shake well before serving,” but that’s the case with nigori sake: the sake is shaken to disperse the sediment and turn the drink a pearly white.
Tokai “Snow Maiden,” a sake mentioned by a commenter earlier, is a junmai nigori sake. It’s named after Japan’s most famous koi, “Hanako”, which lived 226 years in the icy waters at the foot of Mt. Ontake.
Jack of Amsterdam points out this interesting article by John Hulsman in Foreign Policy:
It’s easy to assume that the Counterinsurgency Field Manual — the U.S. military’s new, post-Iraq-surge bible on unconventional warfare — is something of a revolution in military thought. Afghanistan itself is rewriting the rules of war every day, it seems. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. The U.S. generals dictating strategy to their troops would have done better to pass around a 1917 publication by Lawrence of Arabia, "27 Articles." [quite fascinating – LG]
Like the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was written at a time when the U.S. military was losing Iraq, "27 Articles" was composed during difficult days. It was the height of the Great War in August 1917, following the astonishing capture of Aqaba in the desert campaign against the Ottoman Empire. The British were using Arab insurgents to harass the Turks, and the high command in London, fearing that Aqaba’s conqueror, Lawrence of Arabia, could be killed at any moment, tasked him with codifying what he had learned in dealing with his Arab allies. It was meant to be a manual for British officers serving in the field with Faisal, the Hashemite prince and insurgent leader, and his troops. So, in the midst of leading his guerrilla campaign, Lawrence wearily began typing "27 Articles" in the heat of the desert sun.
The work he produced is nothing less than a new way for Western nation-builders to look at the world. A century ahead of his time, Lawrence realized that without the political backing of the Arab population, he could not win — but with their support, he could not lose. Lawrence describes not only how to run a successful insurgency but how to create a nation. Sounds awfully similar to U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s mantra that protecting the Afghan people — and thus winning their hearts and minds — is the key to success for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. McChrystal acknowledges another dictum of Lawrence: that he is still trying to do way too much with Western troops when Afghans themselves should be doing the brunt of the work. No wonder he wants to double the Afghan Army to 400,000 in the coming years…
Continue reading. There’s lots more of interest.
Americans have always assumed that financial crises happen in basket-case countries, not here. So how then did the U.S. follow the lead of Argentina, Mexico and Thailand by plunging into this one?
Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff answer that question in a provocative new book, This Time Is Different.
The authors, both former top economists at the International Monetary Fund who’re now teaching, respectively, at the University of Maryland and Harvard University, offer examples of mistakes made repeatedly over "eight centuries of financial folly."
In the preface, they offer a crystal-clear analysis of why we are where we are.
"If there is one common theme to the vast range of crises we consider in this book, it is that excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by the government, banks, corporations, or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom," they wrote.
"Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is. Private-sector borrowing binges can inflate housing and stock prices far beyond their long-run sustainable levels, and make banks seem more stable and profitable than they really are."
Reinhart and Rogoff discussed their new book Tuesday with McClatchy. Here are some of their thoughts, edited into a question-and-answer format.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson from today’s U.S. financial crisis? …
The terrific food writer and cookbook author, Martha Rose Shulman, gets lots of requests for nutrition information on her recipes. What do I think about this? Here’s her interview with me borrowed from Zester Daily (the site has the photos and links to her work): …
Classified Bush-era documents on the administration’s controversial interrogation and rendition programs are missing, according to a recent court filing submitted by the Obama Justice Department. But a Justice Department spokeswoman says the documents may not actually be gone; they may never have existed—even though Bush administration records say that they do. Welcome to the Case of the Disappearing Torture Documents. This is more than just a bureaucratic whodunit. There’s a possibility that government officials purposely destroyed records pertaining to detainee abuse.
Here’s what happened:
Interesting list. The intro:
We asked our readers what books made the biggest difference in their lives, and here’s what they had to say. The list below tells you what books shaped their lives and why.
Lots of press about Roman Polanski, not so much about the 13-year-old girl he raped. He makes good movies, and he should get recognition for that. Also, he should be treated under the law like any other felon. Steve Lopez has an excellent lengthy story in the LA Times today, which begins:
Q: Did you resist at that time?
A: A little bit, but not really because . . .
Q: Because what?
A: Because I was afraid of him.
That’s Roman Polanski’s 13-year-old victim testifying before a grand jury about how the famous director forced himself on her at Jack Nicholson’s Mulholland Drive home in March of 1977.
I’m reading this in the district attorney’s office at the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building, digging through the Polanski file to refresh my memory of the infamous case, and my blood pressure is rising.
Is it because I’m the parent of a girl?
Maybe that’s part of it.
But I wish the renowned legal scholars Harvey Weinstein and Debra Winger, to name just two of Polanski’s defenders, were here with me now. I’d like to invite Martin Scorsese, as well, along with David Lynch, who have put their names on a petition calling for Polanski to be freed immediately.
What, because he won an Oscar? Would they speak up for a sex offender who hadn’t?
To hear these people tell it, you’d think Polanski was the victim rather than the teenager.
And then there’s Woody Allen, who has signed the petition too.
You’d think that after marrying his longtime girlfriend’s adopted daughter, he’d have the good sense to remain silent. But at least Soon-Yi Previn was a consenting adult.
I’d like to show all these great luminaries the testimony from Polanski’s underage victim, as well as Polanski’s admission of guilt. Then I’d like to ask whether, if the victim were their daughter, they’d be so cavalier about a crime that was originally charged as sodomy and rape before Polanski agreed to a plea bargain. Would they still support Polanski’s wish to remain on the lam living the life of a king, despite the fact that he skipped the U.S. in 1977 before he was sentenced?
The Zurich Film Festival has been "unfairly exploited" by Polanski’s arrest, Winger said. Thanks, Deb. And so sorry the film festival was inconvenienced by the arrest of a man who left the United States to avoid sentencing for forcing himself on a child.
Weinstein, meanwhile, issued an open letter urging "every U.S. filmmaker to lobby against any move to bring Polanski back to the U.S.," arguing that "whatever you think of the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time."
Let’s get back to the grand jury testimony.
Polanski has taken the girl to Nicholson’s house to photograph her, ostensibly for a French magazine. The girl’s mother, it’s clear to me, should have had her head examined for allowing this to happen, but that’s another matter…
Still working my way through season 3 of The IT Crowd, trying to make it last. Very good comedy.
I mentioned Bill Nighy, and you should not miss him in The Girl in the Café, a totally charming movie. And, on a lesser note, the little indie comedy I’ll Believe You is well worth watching and is available on instant view.
And, of course, I watched a bit more in a long list of movies that I’m watching more or less at the same time.
Yet another great shave, following the basic routine of good products, good prep, and three passes—and a certain amount of practice. As always, I began with washing my beard with MR GLO—I don’t always mention this step, but I always do it.
The Kell’s Original shave stick made its usual great lather, created this time by Simpsons Emperor 3 Super. Now that I know to be stingy with water when using Kell’s Original soaps, I always get a great lather.
Then the Apollo Mikron, certainly one of my favorite razors, did a fantastic job with a much used Astra Keramik Platinum blade. And then a splash of Acqua di Parma to finish, and I’m good to go.
I’m currently watching Bill Nighy in The Girl in the Café, in which he is one of two primary characters. He’s doing a superb job, and I suddenly realized that I’ve never seen Nighy give a performance that is anything other than superb. And he’s a delight to watch.
"You can’t really have reform without a public option," former governor Howard Dean, a prominent public-option advocate, said recently. "If you really want to fix the health care system, you’ve got to give the public the choice of having such an option." Promising as this sounds, it seems increasingly likely that the public option will be a liberal dream deferred. Republicans and conservative Democrats, panicked that the government plan will squash competition and the medical industry as we know it, are slowly killing the idea. Even President Obama, who has endorsed the idea unambiguously, has indicated a willingness to compromise on the issue.
Liberals, understandably, are in agony. But they can take at least some comfort in looking overseas–where one tiny country has managed to build a popular and successful universal health care program based entirely on private insurance. That country is the Netherlands, which several years ago overhauled its health care system and achieved most of the goals the liberal reform movement holds dear: near-universal coverage, affordable insurance, and quality health care.
Under the new system, the Dutch government has required that everybody gets insurance; in return, it makes sure insurance is available to everybody, regardless of pre-existing medical conditions or income. Although the government finances long-term care through a public program, it has turned over the job of providing basic medical coverage exclusively to private insurers, including some for-profit companies. Surveys show that the Dutch are happier with their health care than are Americans—or the people of any other developed country, for that matter. There are even signs, albeit faint ones, that the insurers are achieving what’s become the Holy Grail of health reform: using their leverage to improve the quality of care that doctors and hospitals provide—by improving the coordination of treatments for the chronically ill or steering patients to providers that get the best outcomes.
Still, there’s a catch. A big catch. Private insurance in the Netherlands works because it operates more or less like a public utility. The Dutch government regulates industry practices tightly—more tightly than the reforms now moving through Congress propose to do in the United States. The public insurance option was supposed to make up for that deficiency, at least in part, by setting a standard for service and affordability that the private industry would have to meet—and by offering a fail-safe option in case the private plans simply couldn’t keep up. If Congress ends up gutting the public plan, in part or in whole, then it needs to work even harder on making private insurance work. And it’s an open question whether that will happen.
What makes private insurance work in the Netherlands? It starts with …
Continue reading. Thanks to Jack in Greece for the pointer. Typical cost for family of two: $180/month.
Even Texans can catch on if the facts beat them hard enough—facts like these:
Amanda Terkel in ThinkProgress:
Texas currently has the third-highest teen birth rate in the country and “the highest rate of repeat teen births.” It also leads the nation in the amount of government money it spends on abstinence-only education. But some school districts in the state are now shifting away from that approach, admitting that it isn’t working:
“We mainly did it because of our pregnancy rate,” said Whitney Self, lead teacher for health and physical education at the Hays Consolidated Independent School District. “We don’t think abstinence-only is working.” [...]
Both approaches to sex education teach that refraining from sexual activity is the safest choice for teens.
But abstinence-only gives limited information about contraceptives and condoms and tends to downplay their effectiveness, while abstinence-plus stresses the importance of using such protection if teens are sexually active.
Medical experts have stated concluded that not only do abstinence-only programs not curb teen pregnancy, but “there is evidence to suggest that some of these programs are even harmful and have negative consequences by not providing adequate information for those teens who do become sexually active.”
That’s the one I have, and I think their comments are accurate.
I hope the US does not repeat the Iraq mistake by blowing out of proportion the threat to the US of Iran—which is really no threat at all. War really should be the last resort, but the US seems to love going to war. Heed Scott Ritter.
We are going to be doing this within a couple of years. Michael Specter explores the implications in this New Yorker article:
The first time Jay Keasling remembers hearing the word “artemisinin,” about a decade ago, he had no idea what it meant. “Not a clue,” Keasling, a professor of biochemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled. Although artemisinin has become the world’s most important malaria medicine, Keasling wasn’t an expert on infectious diseases. But he happened to be in the process of creating a new discipline, synthetic biology, which—by combining elements of engineering, chemistry, computer science, and molecular biology—seeks to assemble the biological tools necessary to redesign the living world.
Scientists have been manipulating genes for decades; inserting, deleting, and changing them in various microbes has become a routine function in thousands of labs. Keasling and a rapidly growing number of colleagues around the world have something more radical in mind. By using gene-sequence information and synthetic DNA, they are attempting to reconfigure the metabolic pathways of cells to perform entirely new functions, such as manufacturing chemicals and drugs. Eventually, they intend to construct genes—and new forms of life—from scratch. Keasling and others are putting together a kind of foundry of biological components—BioBricks, as Tom Knight, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped invent the field, has named them. Each BioBrick part, made of standardized pieces of DNA, can be used interchangeably to create and modify living cells.
In the New Yorker Adam Gopnik reviews a new book on the affair:
On a January day in Paris, in 1895, a ceremony was enacted in the courtyard of the École Militaire, on the Champ-de-Mars, that still shocks the mind and conscience to contemplate: Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer and family man, convicted of treason days earlier in a rushed court-martial, was publicly degraded before a gawking crowd. His insignia medals were stripped from him, his sword was broken over the knee of the degrader, and he was marched around the grounds in his ruined uniform to be jeered and spat at, while piteously declaring his innocence and his love of France above cries of “Jew” and “Judas!” It is a ceremony that seems to belong to some older, medieval Europe, of public torture and autos-da-fé and Inquisitions.
Yet it took place in the immediate shadow of the monument of modernity, the Eiffel Tower, then six years old, which loomed at the north end of the Champ-de-Mars. The very improbability of such an act’s happening at such a time—to an assimilated Jew who had mastered a meritocratic system and a city that was the pride and pilothouse of civic rationalism—made it a portent, the moment where Maupassant’s world of ambition and pleasure met Kafka’s world of inexplicable bureaucratic suffering. The Dreyfus affair was the first indication that a new epoch of progress and cosmopolitan optimism would be met by a countervailing wave of hatred that deformed the next half century of European history.
The Dreyfus affair never goes away, and is the subject of a brave new book by the novelist and lawyer Louis Begley, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters (Yale; $24). Brave because Begley wants to use the occasion not for French-bashing, or for reciting the enduring history of European anti-Semitism, bleak as it is, but as a pointed warning and reminder of how fragile the standards of civilized conduct prove in moments of national panic. The Dreyfus affair matters, he believes, because we have, in the past decade, made our own Devil’s Island and hundreds of new Dreyfuses—the Dreyfus affair matters because we’re still in the middle of it. Begley, as he recounts the story of the Parisian fin-de-siècle legal drama, also spends many pages showing that among the prisoners in places like Guantánamo are many Dreyfuses—innocent, as he was, and, on the whole, much worse treated. He wants to arraign Americans, and particularly those who fetishize the Dreyfus case without grasping its principles: that every accused person should be able to face his accusers in a fair trial, and that national panic makes bad policy and false prisoners.
Yet a parallel can be potent without being, point by point, persuasive: Dreyfus was not the Faceless Foreigner but the Enemy Within. Far from being faceless, he was all face: the haters never tired of describing and drawing his hideousness. “His face is grey, flattened and base, showing no sign of remorse . . . a wreck from the ghetto,” the journalist Léon Daudet wrote. That hideous degradation ritual is at the heart of the Dreyfus affair; it was meant to be public and demonstrative—this is what happens to faithless Jews. The degradation of the prisoners at Guantánamo was essentially private and utilitarian: talk or we’ll subject you to unspeakable humiliations.
The Dreyfus affair matters not because of the parallel with our time but because it was …