Archive for August 2nd, 2010
Kinky Boots, and to be accurate, I’m re-watching it. I just recently scored a copy of the soundtrack CD, which made me want to see it again.
In the books line, I’m now reading the 4th novel by Stella Rimington, who retired as DG of MI5 some years ago and has been writing busily ever since, mining the material of her experience. I enjoy the novels, but she writes in such a way that you pretty much have to read them from the beginning in sequence—not so much for allusions as to understand outright explicit references to people and incidents, doubtless written with an eye to forcing the entire series on you. As you might guess, fine writing is not her forte, but the novels are interesting as workmanlike mysteries with lots of authentic detail.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the ADL’s mission is extremely narrow: To combat bias and discrimination directed against Jews, and to promote bias and discrimination when directed against Muslims. As you know, the ADL came out in strong opposition to the Muslim community center being constructed a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York. And now Andrew Sullivan points out:
Always a one-way street:
When it comes to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s building the Museum of Tolerance on the oldest and largest Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem, the ADL has no problem backing the legal rights of the Wiesenthal Center and turning a deaf ear to the sensitivities of the Palestinian Muslims.
Beinart unloads on another double-standard:
When Arizona passes a law that encourages police to harass Latinos, the ADL expresses outrage. But when Israel builds 170 kilometers of roads in the West Bank for the convenience of Jewish settlers, from which Palestinians are wholly or partially banned, the ADL takes out advertisements declaring, “The Problem Isn’t Settlements.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gets a lot of things wrong, for a lot of wrong reasons. But of particular interest today was Steven Pearlstein’s sweeping rejection of Chamber politics, most notably, how wrong it and its president, Tom Donahue, were about President Obama’s rescue of the U.S. auto industry.
Perhaps none was more controversial than the decision to rescue Chrysler and General Motors, using $86 billion in taxpayer funds and an expedited bankruptcy process that wiped out shareholders, brought in new executives and directors, forced creditors to take a financial haircut, closed dealerships and factories and imposed painful cuts in wages and benefits on unionized workers. It was an extraordinary and heavy-handed government intervention into the market economy that left the Treasury owning a majority of both companies. As one participant recalls, public opinion was divided among those who believed that the companies should have been allowed to die, those who believed they would never survive bankruptcy and those who believed the government would inevitably screw things up. Among the most vocal skeptics: the Chamber’s Donohue.
A year later, the auto bailout is an unqualified success. The government used its leverage to force the companies to make the painful changes they should have made years before, and then backed off and let the companies run themselves without any noticeable interference.
The results, which President Obama will tout on a visit to Michigan on Friday: For the first time since 2004, GM and Chrysler, along with Ford, all reported operating profits in their U.S. businesses last quarter. The domestic auto industry added 55,000 jobs last year, ending a decade-long string of declines. Auto sector exports are up 57 percent so far this year and, thanks largely to new government regulations, the industry is moving quickly to introduce more fuel-efficient vehicles. Most surprising of all, GM and Chrysler have already repaid more than $8 billion in government loans, while GM is preparing for an initial stock offering later this year that would allow the government to recoup most, if not all, of its investment.
There was a time, not long ago, when real business leaders encouraged these kind of public-private partnerships.
It’s worth noting that the administration’s auto industry bailout not only worked, it exceeded expectations. Just as importantly, it fit comfortably into an existing model — every time the federal government bails out key national industries, the results are encouraging.
A year ago, the Monthly‘s Phillip Longman argued that "any honest reading of history suggests that the federal government has quite an impressive record of rescuing institutions considered too big to fail." Quite right. When the government bailed out Lockheed in 1971, the company thrived and taxpayers profited. The government bailed out Chrysler in 1980, and saw similar results. The government bailed out the railroad industry, and saw it flourish.
In each case, the government spent lots of taxpayer money, used bureaucrats to engineer the revival of an industry, recouped the money, and produced a success story. Conservatives howled in every instance, but as is usually the case, their complaints and dire predictions were wrong.
After Obama intervened to rescue auto manufacturers a year ago, the right insisted it was an example of his purported desire to be a communist dictator. A year later, his efforts look pretty smart, and his detractors’ apoplexy looks pretty foolish.
For that matter, the conservative theme of the year is that government spending is the single most odious phenomenon in the known universe. And yet, it was government spending that prevented a depression, and it was government spending that rescued the American auto industry.
Maybe the right can pick something else to complain about? This talking point isn’t working out well for them.
When the president takes a victory lap (so to speak) at a GM plant this morning, it will be well deserved. We can all be very thankful Obama didn’t listen to conservatives, that there wasn’t a conservative in the Oval Office, and that this industry was spared a looming catastrophe.
One of the uglier strains of modern conservative thought is pervasive anti-intellectualism. As Faiz Shakir noted today, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a rather classic example on "Fox News Sunday."
Host Chris Wallace noted that "a number of top economists" believe that the nation, right now, needs "more economic stimulus." Boehner replied, "Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists; all I need to do is listen to the American people."
That’s actually kind of crazy — the "American people," en masse, lack the qualifications and background needed to make sweeping decisions about complex economic policies. It’s why our system is built around the notion that voters will choose sensible representatives to do this work for us — evaluate a situation, consider the judgment of experts, and ideally reach a wise decision about the way forward.
If Boehner were facing a serious ailment, would he say, "Well, I don’t need to see lab results or to listen to medical professionals; all I need to do is listen to the American people"? Maybe so, but at this point, the serious ailment is our national economy, and it affects us all.
When Wallace pressed Boehner on how he’d pay for trillions of dollars in tax cuts, the would-be Speaker eventually concluded, "This is the whole Washington mindset, all these CBO numbers."
I don’t even know what this means. "All these CBO numbers"? Boehner loves those CBO numbers, when they’re telling him what he wants to hear. But when tax cuts for billionaires are on the line, suddenly objective, independent budget data is deemed useless.
There’s just no seriousness here. Boehner comes to the debate with all the sophistication of a drunk guy yelling at the TV from the end of a bar. He hasn’t thought any of this through, and seems prepared to argue that he shouldn’t think things though because forethought is part of "the whole Washington mindset."
If I thought Boehner was just playing for the cameras, throwing out garbage on Fox News, when in reality he actually takes reason, evidence, and arithmetic seriously, I wouldn’t be scared of his leadership role. But all available evidence suggests Boehner simply doesn’t know what he’s doing and he believes his own nonsense.
As political hackery goes, it’s the worst possible combination of traits.
Life insurance companies delay issuing death benefits owed to families of service members and others by promising to hold the money in safekeeping, an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine found. Senior writer David Evans and Cindy Lohman, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, discuss the findings with NPR’s Robert Siegel. Below is a preview of Evans’ September 2010 magazine article. Read a transcript of the interview.
Millions of Americans are being duped by life insurance companies that have figured out a way to hold onto death benefits owed to families. MetLife and Prudential lead the way in making hundreds of millions of dollars in secret profits every year on money that belongs to relatives of those who die, an investigation by Bloomberg Markets magazine found. Among the people being tricked are parents and spouses of U.S. soldiers killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Update: New York Launches Probe Of Life Insurance Industry July 29, 2010)
Survivors of service men and women are told they’ll get a $400,000 life insurance payout. They don’t. Instead, Prudential — which has a government contract to provide life insurance for military families — keeps their money.
Families are surprised when they receive what looks like a checkbook. In documents, Prudential promises to hold the money in safekeeping for as long as families would like, saying it will pay them 0.5 percent interest. What Prudential doesn’t disclose is that it is keeping survivors’ money in Prudential’s own corporate investment account, where the company is earning five to 10 times as much as it pays to families. The so-called checks have JPMorgan Chase printed on them, but they cannot be used as regular checks. Instead, they are to be submitted back to Prudential to get any money
Heard On ‘Morning Edition’, July 29, 2010: Expert Blasts Insurance Practice As Deceptive [4 min 53 sec]
But the money isn’t in a bank, and it’s not protected by FDIC insurance. None of these facts are spelled out to the survivors; the details are often hidden in fine print.
Nor are families told that they could earn more than twice as much interest by opening FDIC-insured money market accounts at banks across the country. Families of fallen soldiers say they often don’t want to touch the "checkbooks" because they view them as payments in return for their sacrificed child. As a result, Prudential holds onto the death benefits, often for a year or more.
"I’m shocked," says Cindy Lohman, a Maryland woman whose son, Ryan, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. "It’s a betrayal. It saddens me as an American that a company would stoop so low as to make a profit on the death of a soldier."
Millions of Americans have unwittingly been placed in the same position by their insurance companies…
Interesting post by a conservative professor of corporate law:
These days it’s getting increasingly embarrassing to publicly identify oneself as a conservative. It was bad enough when George Bush 43, the K Street Gang, and the neo-cons were running up spending, fighting an unnecessary war of choice in Iraq, incurring massive deficits, expanding entitlements, and all the rest of the nonsense I cataloged over the years in posts like Bush 43 has been a disaster for conservatives.
These days, however, the most prominent so-called conservatives are increasingly fit only to be cast for the next Dumb and Dumber sequel. They’re dumb and crazy.
Conservative pundit David Klinghoffer has a great op-ed in today’s LA Times that nicely captures what I’m on about:
Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions — like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now. Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, whose news and opinion website, Breitbart.com, is read by millions. In his most recent triumph, Breitbart got a U.S. Department of Agriculture official pushed out of her job after he released a deceptively edited video clip of her supposedly endorsing racism against white people.
What has become of conservatism? … With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of "neocons" versus "paleocons." Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons. …
Conservatism wasn’t just a policy agenda, a set of partisan gripes or a football team seeking victory on the electoral field. Above all, it was a satisfying, sophisticated critique of modern, materialist culture, pointing a way out and up from liberalism.
Let’s tick off ten things that make this conservative embarrassed by the modern conservative movement:
- A poorly educated ex-sportswriter who served half of one term of an minor state governorship is prominently featured as a — if not the — leading prospect for the GOP’s 2012 Presidential nomination.
- Tom Tancredo calling President Obama “the . . .
Continue reading. It’s interesting, though of course even the conservative pantheon includes outright racists like William F. Buckley Jr., who took the position that African-Americans were not ready for full citizenship and who resolutely opposed the Civil Rights movement.
Here’s yet another broken promise from Obama when it comes to executive power and the 4th amendment. The Washington Post reports:
The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.
The administration wants to add just four words — "electronic communication transactional records" — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history.
4th amendment? Probable cause? Warrants? What are you, some kinda commie pinko?
This is all about the use of those National Security Letters that have been so thoroughly abused since they were created by the Patriot Act. In 2006, the feds admitted that the FBI had badly abused their authority with NSLs, using them to collect information that had nothing to do with terrorism and ignoring directives from the FISA court governing their use. But they had fixed those problems, they assured us.
Then in 2008, they had to admit that the same thing had continued to happen long after they assured us that they had fixed the problems. And in addition to the FBI, the CIA and the DOD have been using them too. So by all means, let’s make it even easier for them to get all this information without a warrant.
Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official, said the proposed change would broaden the bureau’s authority. "It’ll be faster and easier to get the data," said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law. "And for some Internet providers, it’ll mean giving a lot more information to the FBI in response to an NSL."
Many Internet service providers have resisted the government’s demands to turn over electronic records, arguing that surveillance law as written does not allow them to do so, industry lawyers say. One senior administration government official, who would discuss the proposed change only on condition of anonymity, countered that "most" Internet or e-mail providers do turn over such data.
To critics, the move is another example of an administration retreating from campaign pledges to enhance civil liberties in relation to national security. The proposal is "incredibly bold, given the amount of electronic data the government is already getting," said Michelle Richardson, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.
The critics say its effect would be to greatly expand the amount and type of personal data the government can obtain without a court order. "You’re bringing a big category of data — records reflecting who someone is communicating with in the digital world, Web browsing history and potentially location information — outside of judicial review," said Michael Sussmann, a Justice Department lawyer under President Bill Clinton who now represents Internet and other firms.
These are not a little-used tool, by the way. They’re used about 50,000 times a year. The New York Times yesterday called this "an unnecessary and disappointing step backward toward more intrusive surveillance from a president who promised something very different during the 2008 campaign." They’re right.
Obama’s broken promises seem to point to increasing dictatorial powers for the American presidency. Great. Just what we need.