Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Random picture

Mikhail Kalashnikov, holding the eponymous weapon he designed in 1947, the Avtomatni Kalashnikova, or AK-47. The Russian company that manufacturers this 'most widely used in the world' assault rifle (Izhmash Arms), faces bankruptcy... Reason: cheap knock-offs...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

UNSC Resolution 1887

September 24th the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1887. This was immediately hailed as "historic" by President Obama, who chaired the session. The resolution "expresses the Council’s grave concern about the threat of nuclear proliferation and the need for international action to prevent it. It reaffirms that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery are threats to international peace and security and shows agreement on a broad range of actions to address nuclear proliferation and disarmament and the threat of nuclear terrorism" (see 'Fact Sheet on the UN Security Council Summit on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nuclear Disarmament UNSC Resolution 1887').

Reactions ranged from those lauding President Obama for achieving a signal victory, to others accusing him of having demonstrated "weakness." President Sarkozy of France managed to strongly push for the resolution, even while "sticking it" to the President. An example of a laudatory reaction, "... Obama has consolidated global support behind the vision and the plan. He has laid the legal and diplomatic basis for enforcing tougher penalties for those that cheat on nuclear treaties. He has gotten all the nuclear nations to agree to new steps to get rid of the weapons they now hold in staggering numbers. It is remarkable progress..."

This blogger agrees that the resolution was a very positive step. However, he does not see it either as an amazing achievement, nor as a particularly huge or irrevocable step towards disarmament., and would caution against letting any of the apparent euphoria related to this resolution detract from the serious work yet remaining .. But what about the unanimous agreement? Well, that was both an artefact of the how the resolution was written - with sufficient ambiguity to allow states with differing viewpoints to agree on the formulation - as well as the fact that the document did not seriously bind the permanent members to change their existing actions or positions. A few examples to consider:

Section 4 "calls upon all States that are not Parties to the NPT to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon States so as to achieve its universality at an early date, and pending their accession to the Treaty, to adhere to its terms;" Seems rather cut and dried, a strong push to bring all companies under the aegis of the NPT. Or is it? As soon as the resolution passed India immediately registered its objections to this, and was promptly reassured by the U.S. Additionally, barely a week earlier many of those who voted for 1887 (and presumably agreed with the need for all non-signatories to accede to the NPT) had voted against a resolution urging Israel to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to place all their atomic sites under UN inspections... (note: the vote passed despite this...)

Section 5 "Calls upon the Parties to the NPT, pursuant to Article VI of the Treaty, to undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear arms reduction and disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control, and calls on all other States to join in this endeavour;" Although the nuclear powers agreed here to work towards "complete (nuclear) disarmament", who can doubt that this "long and arduous" journey will not be their major focus, and will most certainly be subordinated to the incomparably more important (ahem) issue of nonproliferation?

Section 7 "Calls upon all States to refrain from conducting a nuclear test explosion and to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), thereby bringing the treaty into force at an early date;" A long-standing goal of the nuclear "have nots," the "haves" here agree to achieve this "at an early date." However, there is no evidence of current moves towards achieving this goal any time soon. Both China and the United States have signed but not ratified the CTBT (U.S. - signed by President Clinton in 1996, rejected by the Senate in 1999). The language in 1887 appears to reflect President-elect Obama's commitment to taking the CTBT to the Senate for ratification "at the earliest practical date." At present, however, it is very unlikely that the Senate would ratify the CTBT, even if strongly supported by the President...

Section 9 "Recalls the statements by each of the five nuclear-weapon States, noted by resolution 984 (1995), in which they give security assurances against the use of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear-weapon State Parties to the NPT, and affirms that such security assurances strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime;" Here, the nuclear "haves" would appear to have reconfirmed an assurance that they will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. Apparently fairly cut and dried. But how do we square this with the standard "we won't take any options off the table" formulation that has been brandished against various states, including but not limited to (non-nuclear) Iraq and Iran?

Section 19 "Encourages States to consider whether a recipient State has signed and ratified an additional protocol based on the model additional protocol in making nuclear export decisions;" Note the use of "encourages." By using this "softer" term (rather than, say, "requires") Russia can both agree to the resolution and still have the latitude to proceed with supporting Iran's reactor at Bushehr... Similarly, Section 8 which covers the negotiation of a treaty to ban the production of fissile material, "requests all Member States to cooperate in guiding the Conference to an early commencement of Substantive work" (note "requests.")

Bottom line: while an important step, the achievement of unanimity for Resolution 1887 is more due to its artful composition than to President Obama somehow having convinced by force of argument Russia, China, etc. to change or moderate their positions... The progress achieved here is real, but much, much more work remains to be done!

Unanimously voting for the resolution were the permanent members (U.S. Russia, China, U.K., France), along with Japan, Costa Rica, Croatia, Mexico, Austria, Vietnam, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Turkey, and Libya, represented by:

President Barack Obama, United States of America
President Óscar Arias Sánchez, Republic of Costa Rica
President Stjepan Mesic, Republic of Croatia
President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, Russian Federation
President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, United Mexican States
President Heinz Fischer, Republic of Austria
President Nguyen Minh Triet, Socialist Republic of Viet Nam
President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, Republic of Uganda
President Hu Jintao, People’s Republic of China
President Nicolas Sarkozy, France
President Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Japan
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Republic of Turkey
Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, Permanent Representative of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

The links:

UN Security Council adopts resolution on nuclear safeguards
White House Fact Sheet on UN Security Council Resolution 1887
Text of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887
India strongly reacts to UNSC resolution on NPT.
U.S.: UN resolution on NPT not directed against India
Ouch! French President Sarkozy slams ‘naive’ Obama for living in 'virtual world’ on Iran
Obama's Nuclear Victory
Building a world without nukes
IAEA urges Israel to allow nuclear inspection

Unintended consequences...


In the September 29th, 2008 blog entry, Quick Reminder, this blogger bemoaned the fact that our elected representatives (of all stripes) "often act on minimal information and with a cavalier disregard of the intricacies of the matter at hand" and that this often results in "unintended consequences!" Well, this continues to be the modus operandi of most of them. Some recent examples:
  • The recent fuss over ACORN (see here, here, and here) led to a mass stampede in the House and Senate, where overwhelming majorities (Senate: 83-7; House 345-75) voted to "defund" the group. Now, apparently, in their haste to do this (some to score political points, others to inoculate themselves against possible 'contagion' from erstwhile friends) the law they passed which calls for the denial of government contracts to entities that have "filed a fraudulent form with any Federal or State regulatory agency" may affect any number of large defense contractors, see: Salon Radio: Rep. Alan Grayson on de-funding corrupt defense contractors
  • Another recent example involves the recent change in Massachusetts, with the Democratic-majority legislature giving Governor Deval Patrick the authority to appoint a replacement to the Senate seat previously held by Senator Edward Kennedy. This was "necessary" as an unintended consequence of the last time they monkeyed with the replacement process...
Here's an easy prediction that's guaranteed to come about: one or two years after health care reform (or, rather, health insurance reform) gets passed, our Senators and Representatives will be complaining about some aspect of the delivery system and demanding corrective legislation, and that the issue(s) they are complaining about will be a direct (but unintended) consequence of the earlier reform... Another easy prediction: when this happens they will eschew all ownership and responsibility for the issue, and will seek to lay the blame elsewhere...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Great quotes

"98 percent certainty that Iran already had all (or virtually all) of the components required for two to three operational nuclear weapons.” - U.S. Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the House Republican Research Committee

"Within three to five years, we can assume that Iran will become autonomous in its ability to develop and produce a nuclear bomb… (The nuclear threat) must be uprooted by an international front headed by the U.S.” - Benjamin Netanyahu

"Is [Iran’s nuclear program] a problem today? Probably not. But three, four, five years from now it could be a serious problem." - Bob Gates

All quotes from 1992, see How to Keep Iran in Check Without War

Random chart

Graphs showing that although a majority of people are satisfied overall with their health insurance coverage, they are still dissatisfied with various elements... For this and additional information see the full story - the Kaiser Family Foundation's Americans’ Satisfaction with Insurance Coverage.

Both sides of their mouths...

Friday, September 18th: "The UN nuclear assembly voted on Friday to urge Israel to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)" The motion barely carried, by a vote of 49 to 45 with Western nations voting against...

Thursday, September 24th: President Obama chairs a Security Council session that unanimously adopts a "historical resolution" (per the President). Looking at the resolution, after all the "resolving," "reaffirming," "recalling," "bearing in mind," "calling for," "gravely concerned," etc., etc. we get to #4 "Calls upon all States that are not Parties to the NPT to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear weapon States so as to achieve its universality at an rearly date, and pending their accession to the Treaty, to adhere to its terms."

Which is it?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Health care re-form XI (Sales job)

This week the administration published "The Burden of Health Insurance Premium Increases on American Families", a short treatise on insurance costs. Perusing this document one reads:
  • Health insurance premiums have increased faster than wages, and thus have accounted for an increasing share of family budgets.
  • This premium growth has also largely outpaced inflation.
  • "Consumers ultimately bear the brunt of costs as increases in hospital, physician, drug, and health plan spending are all passed down the value chain to American families, employers, and the government who pay the bills."
  • Health insurance premiums are highly variable across the country, and premium growth also has been highly variable... "... These differences lead to significant inequity for families and businesses..."
  • There is a discussion re "unjustified premium growth," the need to make sure "that insurance companies are not unfairly or excessively increasing their premiums."
OK, so clearly the purpose of this document is to "sell" the need for health care (strike that, and make it health insurance) reform (Ed note: this blogger does believe that health care reform is needed, but just takes exception to this line of argument). It does this by continuing to demonize the health insurance companies, clearly responsible for this sad state of affairs! However, this blogger has several nits to pick with this narrative.

First, while it cavils about premium increases outpacing inflation and wages the report does not suggest what comparative increase levels are appropriate... general inflation? medical inflation? some other indicator? wages? While it is unfortunate that it has outpaced wages, what exactly is the correlation between wages and health care costs? Do we have a divine right that wages increase faster than health care costs? If the answer is 'yes' here, why not the same for food cost, housing costs, indeed all costs?

Second, apparently we are expected to be outraged that the "brunt" of these increases is being borne by "American families, employers, and the government..." Ahem, it's the American families who bear all costs, it's a polite fiction that employers or the government pay for them. Where do the employers and government get the wherewithal to pay? That's right, from "American families." Where else should the money be coming from? Is there some secret magic source of funds that should be responsible? No, American families pay the employer-paid portion (e.g. as passed on costs built into products and services, in the form of forgone wages, etc.); they pay the government-paid portion (e.g. through their taxes, by paying interest on the national debt, by passing the cost on to their children and grandchildren when the government pays via debt, etc.)

So, health insurance premiums and their annual increases vary state by state. Since the report is totally silent on what level of variation is normal or acceptable, we are left with the implication that the fact that there are differences is somehow unjust or nefarious. Does anyone really think that health care costs, premium levels and/or annual premium increases should be the same in Fargo, North Dakota as in San Francisco, California or Boston, Massachusetts? Given the differences in cost of living, wage levels, housing prices, etc., etc. this is a ludicrous preposition. Yet, the real differences are cast as "bad' ipso facto, with no effort to normalize, etc. the data!

Finally, words such as "unfair," "unjustified," "excessive," "exorbitant," etc., are thrown around rather cavalierly. The examples cited don't particularly support these... OK, so an argument can be made (and some do) that health insurance company profit levels should be regulated and fixed. However, (putting aside the fact that their profit margins average an anemic 3-4%, which does not lend itself to particularly deep cuts) this report and this administration do not argue for this level of regulation. The report also emphasizes that most states are regulating these increases, thus begging the question re why federal involvement is needed.

Bottom line, this report is at best a sales brochure. True, it is full of facts and they are all correct, but without additional information, analysis, and context, might be said to be (pace Shakespeare's Macbeth) "...full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.

Previous entries on hospitals & health care:
Health care re-form X (Cowardice) - Sep 13th, 2009
Tempest in a teapot - Sep 5th, 2009
That explains it... (death panels) - Sep 1st, 2009
Health care re-form IX (Apologies due) - Aug 30th, 2009
Health care re-form VIII (More nonsense) - Aug 28th, 2009
Health care re-form VII (Nonsense) - Aug 26th, 2009
Health care re-form VI (Effectiveness) - Aug 15th, 2009
Health care re-form V (The sales job) - Aug 14th, 2009
Health care re-form IV (What is it?) - Aug 13th, 2009
Health care re-form III (Why we spend more) - Aug 8th, 2009
Health care re-form II (P4P) - Aug 4th, 2009
Health care re-form I (Issues) - Aug 4th, 2009
So? - Jul 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jul 12th, 2009
Random charts... - May 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - May 9th, 2009
Wyeth v. Levine - Mar 22nd, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - III - Mar 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - Feb 1st, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - II - Jan 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jan 26th, 2009
Hospitals' financial update - Dec 25th, 2008
Good for the goose - Dec 11th, 2008
Studies of intererst - IV - Nov 16th, 2008
Studies of interest - II - Nov 16th, 2008
Financial crisis & hospitals - I - Nov 14th, 2008

Random chart

Graph showing average insurance premiums and their increases over the years (source).

Most of the health insurance reform proposals include a requirement that everyone carry health insurance (to maximize participation in the risk pool), with fines and penalties for those who attempt to evade this requirement. At present legislation proposed by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) proposes a $750 penalty for individuals and a $1,900 penalty for families, when incomes are over 300% of the federal poverty level. These represent a reduction from his original proposals, reduced in light of criticism from other Democrats that his proposed penalties were too high.

This blogger hasn't found any further explanation of how these penalties are to be administered or assessed. Are they a one-time assessment, an annual assessment, or a penalty that is levied in addition to the individual or family being required to buy a policy? One hopes that it is the latter and not the former, otherwise these penalties are set too low... and someone in good health who was willing to take the risk would find it cheaper to pay the penalty than to sign up!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mintpass Mintpad second look


The previous blog entry 'Mintpass Mintpad first look' "unboxed" the Mintpad, a tiny (78.2 x 63.8 x 15.2mm or 3.08 x 2.51 x 0.60 inch; approximately 90 gm, or 3 oz) multimedia device with a WinCE 5.0 operating system. 4GB of internal memory is supplemented with a microSD slot (max 16GB), and it has a 320x240 color touchscreen (2.86 inch).

This mini device has 802.11b/g WiFi, a 1.3 megapixel camera (also takes movies), speaker, earphone, microphone, and a 900 mAh lithium ion battery. Connect to your desktop's USB port via the cable provided (note: the end at the Mintpad does not look 'standard') and it charges, and is seen from the desktop as another drive (allowing for the manual transfers of files).

Below are some pictures to give an idea of the size, followed by a quick video showing some of the functionality (sorry for the poor quality!)...

With a Zaurus SL-C3000:


With a Blackberry Bold:


With an iPhone:


Main menu:





Bottom line: cute little gadget that is a 'jack of all trades, master of none.' However, very entertaining, and there's a lot stuffed into a very small package...

Mintpass' Mintpad page
mintpass mintpad (Another iriver news? Kinda)
First impressions of the mintpass mintpad
Review of the Mintpass Mintpad MID / PDA / MP3 Player
Mintpad MP3 player review (CNET review)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mintpass Mintpad first look

UMID - yet another comparison

Previous blog entries had pictures of the UMID M1 with a desktop, VAIO laptop, Flipstart, Blackberry Bold, and Zaurus SL-C3000; as well as with a Nokia E90 Communicator. FWIW, below are photos of the UMID along with an iPhone...

Great quote (?)


“They spend a lot of money, even in places where they don’t have congregations, they build mosques, they build hospitals, they build anything... They come to Africans and say, ‘Christianity is asking you to marry only one wife. We will give you four!’ ... That is the type of evangelism they are doing: mass-production, so if you have four wives, four children, sixteen children, very soon you will be a village.” - Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Anglican Primate of Nigeria, during a sermon arguing that Africa is under attack from Islam.

Muslims mass-producing children to take over Africa, says Archbishop

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Random picture

In Belgium, milk producers protest and dump three million liters (over 792,000 US gallons) of milk in the fields...

L'épandage frappe les esprits: « Le lait est pur et sacré »

« Il a fallu attendre de voir l'épandage en Belgique pour que le journal télévisé parle de nous, ils veulent des images, ils vont en avoir », prévient le président de l'APLI, l'Association des producteurs de lait indépendants. Des images qui frappent les esprits, car le lait a « quelque chose de virginal dans sa blancheur, il est pur et sacré », explique le psychanalyste Serge Hefez. Et d'ajouter :

« Les urbains se disent que ces paysans doivent être au bout du désespoir pour jeter ce qui les fait vivre. Le rapport à l'animal lors de la traite est très affectif. C'est comme si ce lait faisait partie d'eux, jaillissait du corps-même de l'agriculteur ou de l'agricultrice. »

Il y a bien quelque chose de plus lorsque l'on voit un agriculteur jeter son lait que quand ils jetaient des tomates. Et ils en ont conscience. Mais pour Pascal Massol, président de l'APLI :

« C'est plus dangereux de livrer le lait que de le jeter : si je le livre il est séché pour faire de la poudre, il part sous le prix de revient (32 centimes le litre). On veut bien être garant de la ruralité, mais ça va finir en jacquerie. Il y a déjà eu quatre suicides la semaine dernière dans le Finistère, il faut le faire savoir. »

« Le lait vous nourrit mais plus nous »

Pour Pascal Massol : « C'est simple : si on ne jette pas on est mort, le lait vous nourrit mais plus nous ! » Comme le montre ce reportage sur un producteur de Maine-et-Loire :

Lisez la suite...

Translated:

"It needed the in Belgium for the TV news to speak about us, they want pictures..." says the President of APLI, the Association of Independent Milk Producers. Images that strike the mind, because milk has "something virginal in its whiteness, it is pure and sacred," explains psychoanalyst Serge Hefez. And he adds:

"City dwellers say that these peasants must be at the end of despair to throw away what makes them live. The rapport with the animal during milking is very emotional. It is as if the milk was among them, sprang from the body itself of the farmer."

There is a bigger impact when we see a farmer dumping her milk as opposed to when they dump tomatoes. And they know it. Pascal Massol, president of APLI says:

"It's more dangerous to deliver the milk than to throw it away. If I deliver it, it is dried to make milk powder, and is sold under the cost price (32 cents a liter). Ww want to guarantee rural life, but it will end in jacquerie. There were four suicides last week in Brittany, you need to know. "

"Milk nourishes you but us no longer"

Read the rest here...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Random pictures

Couple of pictures from the 'Colours of Russia' project. Go there for a large number of galleries of pictures. The project is supposed to foster "a new era of understanding of modern Russia through representative imagery." Definitely worth a visit!

Random chart

"A new report by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, "Academic Medical Centers: The Tipping Point," shares recent research about the pressures facing each element of Academic Medical Centers’ tripartite mission – pressures that are being compounded by the unprecedented effects of health cost containment, health reform and the recession."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Random pictures...

Hamid Karzai to the French newspaper Le Figaro, "I will not be an American puppet."

Picture credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

Ballots from the Afghan presidential elections. See "On a volé les élections aux Afghans"

Health care re-form X (Cowardice)

Well by now the entire world has had multiple opportunities to see and/or read about Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) and his intemperate "you lie" during President Obama's speech on health care reform to both houses of Congress. Amazingly, his 'shout out' (which was factually incorrect) has some Democrats and the administration scurrying to further tighten up the bill!

This blogger is not impressed by the position being taken by the Democrats and the Obama administration, and by the efforts they are expending to try to appear as "tough" as the Republicans with respect to the treatment of illegal immigrants... If (economically, morally, etc.) it makes sense to have everyone covered by insurance, and that it a good idea to subsidize a certain portion of the population to ensure that this happens, then what reason is there for not covering this subset? If insurance coverage is supposed to lead to preventative care that will bring down overall costs (e.g. by reducing the use of the nation's emergency rooms for primary care, etc.) then how does legal status effect the economic argument? What sense does it make to 'cut off our nose to spite our face' to make sure that the undocumented do not 'benefit?' This is stupidity, and, dare we say it, cowardice, on the part of the administration...

The House Bill Does Cover Illegals
Obama’s Health Care Speech (factcheck.org)
Baucus, Conrad Cave To Joe Wilson On Health Care Bill
House Progressive Whacks Conrad and Baucus for Appeasing Heckler
Illegal Immigrants Could Not Buy Insurance on New ‘Exchange,’ White House Says

Previous entries on hospitals & health care:

Tempest in a teapot - Sep 5th, 2009
That explains it... (death panels) - Sep 1st, 2009
Health care re-form IX (Apologies due) - Aug 30th, 2009
Health care re-form VIII (More nonsense) - Aug 28th, 2009
Health care re-form VII (Nonsense) - Aug 26th, 2009
Health care re-form VI (Effectiveness) - Aug 15th, 2009
Health care re-form V (The sales job) - Aug 14th, 2009
Health care re-form IV (What is it?) - Aug 13th, 2009
Health care re-form III (Why we spend more) - Aug 8th, 2009
Health care re-form II (P4P) - Aug 4th, 2009
Health care re-form I (Issues) - Aug 4th, 2009
So? - Jul 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jul 12th, 2009
Random charts... - May 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - May 9th, 2009
Wyeth v. Levine - Mar 22nd, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - III - Mar 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - Feb 1st, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - II - Jan 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jan 26th, 2009
Hospitals' financial update - Dec 25th, 2008
Good for the goose - Dec 11th, 2008
Studies of intererst - IV - Nov 16th, 2008
Studies of interest - II - Nov 16th, 2008
Financial crisis & hospitals - I - Nov 14th, 2008

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Great quotes

“Uphold the basic economic system with public ownership playing a dominant role and diverse forms of economic ownership developing together, and with the practice of distribution according to work being carried out as the mainstay alongside other forms of distribution"
- One of 50 official Chinese slogans for national day. This October 1st will mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, see here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Great quotes...

"The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the President."

Republican denouncing President Obama's speech to schoolchildren? Nope, Majority leader Dick Gephardt denouncing President George H.W. Bush's similar speech, in 1991... Equally silly, though this time it seems to have stepped up a notch by fussing before the speech, and by children being pulled as/if their parents objected!

The Obama School Speech Debate
Obama's Speech to Schools

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Random picture...

Ahmad Shah Massoud, Lion of the Panjshir, popular anti-Soviet fighter and leader, assassinated right before the 9/11 attacks... Read September 9: The shot that was not heard round the world

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Random picture...

Standing neck deep in water, Hindu holy men in Mumbai chant and pray to appease the rain god to ensure the arrival of monsoon rains. (Picture credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images). See this one and many more at Recent Hindu festivals and rituals (at The Big Picture)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Campaign (corporate) financing


On Wednesday the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in a case, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. Originally the case was about a conservative group suing the FEC so as not to have to disclose who financed a film they made and distributed last year. Since the film was "political" (i.e. sharply critical of Hillary Clinton), the question is re the requirements of the McCain Feingold Act.

However, rather than deciding the narrow case, the justices scheduled arguments for hearing "whether the law itself raised constitutional questions and it said it would reexamine a 1990 decision that said restricting corporations from spending money from their general treasuries to support or oppose political candidates did not violate constitutional guarantees of free speech." A number of people are concerned that the justices will take advantage of this opportunity to overturn the ban on direct corporate contributions to political campaigns.

Good! This blogger has long argued for a system that allows for unrestricted (more or less) contributions as long as there is concomitant disclosure (for example, see OPED20 from March of 2002, reprinted below). However, those who are in favor of campaign finance restrictions are up in arms over this anticipated "judicial activism" and are predicting disastrous consequences. They don't seem to realize that no matter what laws are passed, the moneyed interests and politicians will find a way to get together! "Political action committees", "Soft money", "527 groups", etc., sound familiar? How else did expenditures in the last presidential election cycle easily top $1 Billion for the first time (see graphs above)?

Justices to Review Campaign Finance Law Constraints
A test case for Roberts
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission at SCOTUSBlog
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission at Scotuswiki

OPED20 Campaign Finance 'Reform' (reprint from March 2002)

A hot topic in the news is campaign finance reform. The McCain-Feingold-Cochrane Campaign Finance Reform Bill - Senate S27, has passed the Senate, while the Shays-Meehan Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act - House HR 2356 - passed the House in February. Both these bills aim to regulate campaign financing by eliminating 'soft money' donations, and imposing other restrictions.

Since Shays-Meehan is slightly different from the Senate version discussions are back in the Senate. Senator Daschle has vowed to get it through the Senate by 3/25, Republicans (led by Mitch McConnell, R-KY) are resisting and threatening a filibuster.

Do a Google search

The passage of these bills was helped by revelations of Enron's massive political contributions, even though these paled in comparison to union contributions - In the 2001-2002 election cycle Enron ranked 33rd in soft money contributions, while in the 1999-2000 election cycle it ranked 15th in soft money contributions. (The AFSCME was on top in both of these cycles, the SEIU was once second and once third in the rankings, while the CWA was 6th in both cycles.)

Instead of fighting the "villain du jour" (today it is soft money, a few years ago it was Political Action Committees...) with restrictive and constitutionally questionable laws, we should ease restrictions on campaign financing but subject all financing to the light of day, a sort of Regulation FD for the political industry. The following is a suggested outline for a campaign reform system:

  • Raise hard money contribution limits to $20,000 per donor per phase of the election cycle (i.e. a donor could contribute up to $20,000 in the primary, and then $20,000 in the general election).
  • Cap soft money contributions at $100,000 per person or $500,000 per organization per phase of the election cycle. Thus the total amount of money an individual may contribute in aggregate would be $240,000 in a single year. There would be no exclusion for self-financed campaigns.
  • Every candidate would need to have a web site listing every contribution received with donor information. This would be the name and state of every individual donor, and the name of every organization (with industry classification and membership information, so that an organization can not be used as a front to avoid disclosing donors' names). Information for every contribution would have to be available on the web site within 24 hours of depositing donor checks. The web sites would be standardized so that they would be identical for all candidates, and would be indexed and searchable by amount, donor, state, organization, industry, etc. With immediate full disclosure, all sources of campaign funding would be fully transparent and available to interested individuals, the media, and the politicians' opponents (potentially to be used as a campaign issue...) To ensure compliance with the listing requirements, every infraction (no matter how small) would result in a $500,000 fine payable within 2 weeks. If the politician could not pay the fine within the deadline then he/she would be stricken from the poll.
  • All contributions to any post-election 'transition' activities and celebrations would be banned. While contributions to candidates can be considered 'at risk', contributions to the person who has won the election are more likely to be made to ensure 'access'. Being post-election this ban should avoid 'free speech' constitutionality problems.

War and violent death


Photo Credit: Peter Turnley

The Associated Press (AP) recently ran a photograph showing a seriously wounded Marine (just after he was hit and mortally wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade), who died soon thereafter. Some newspapers chose to run the photo, many did not. This set off a big controversy, with the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calling the decision “appalling” and a breach of “common decency” while blasting the AP. The 'controversy' then spread, and was amplified in the blogosphere.

It seems that periodically this comes up and the country indulges in a paroxysm of back and forth and recriminations between the two sides and their opposite and opposing viewpoints. This blogger firmly comes down in the "let's show it all" camp... Below is a reprint of a March 2003 oped penned by this blogger supporting this viewpoint...
AP and the Death of a Marine
Robert Gates protests AP decision as 'appalling'
War’s Painful Imagery
The dying marine: What the hell was the AP thinking?
After Further Review: The AP Photo Controversy
Unseen Pictures, Untold Stories

OPED35The reality of war (reprint from 03/23/2003)

Sunday 03/23 Iraqi TV showed the bodies of a few dead American troops and then 5 American POWs, both part of a maintenance detail that apparently went off course and was ambushed and captured. This footage was rebroadcast by the Al Jazeera television station. The reaction to this development, by various administration officials and by the press, brought about ruminations on two topics:
  • The Ugly Face (Truth) of War: The footage of the dead was uniformly denounced as 'disgusting.' On ABC Charlie Gibson said "showing dead bodies is disrespectful." This author would disagree... While showing dead bodies is unsettling and difficult (most especially for those that have loved ones at risk in the area of conflict), this is precisely why it is important to not hide this aspect of war. Death, especially before one's time and through violence, is ugly. But since death is an integral part and unavoidable consequence of every war, those who have the responsibility for making the decision to go to war as well as those who support them and the decision, must know and understand the consequences of what they call for. (Note: this includes the author, who laid out a blueprint for military action against Iraq in OPED29 and OPED30, notwithstanding the sick humor of OPED33.) War is not antiseptic and showing it as such, like a 'shoot-em-up' computer game with nifty diagrams, cool equipment, great technology, etc. is to show disrespect to those who have to slog (and occasionally die) in the mud and the dirt. Initially, at the start of the war many network correspondents seemed annoyed that the "shock and awe" they had been awaiting had not happened, and then when the heavier bombardment started the reaction was almost universally one of 'hey, cool, check out those big explosions'... From their hotel rooms they beamed pictures of bright flashes into our living rooms, studiously ignoring the fact that the result of those flashes was death for those on the receiving end. While unfortunate and necessary to free Iraq of Saddam Hussein and his regime, ignoring the reality of those deaths is doing no one any favors.... The pictures above have been 'borrowed' from the sources linked to above. The first is a recent, horrible, photo of a small girl killed in her home in Basra (in the southern no-fly zone) by an errant missile. This is what is swept under the rug, antisepticised as "collateral damage." The second picture is from the first Gulf War. Every one who supports the war needs to go to The Unseen Gulf War by Peter Turnley to view the reality of war. While it may not change one's mind about the need for the present action (e.g. as with this author) at least one knows more directly some of the true costs....

  • The Role of the Media: Many TV anchors and war correspondents have not distinguished themselves by their reporting or understanding of the war, content to regurgitate official communiques and listen in awe to the retired generals they have lined up as experts, rather than do real reporting... Some examples where they have not distinguished themselves:
    • With reference to the above-mentioned Iraqi / Al Jazeera footage of U.S. prisoners, the very showing of pictures was denounced by the administration as a violation of the Geneva conventions - SecDef Rumsfeld said that showing photographs of prisoners of war is against the Geneva Convention and termed it as "..a grotesque and sick display..", General Myers termed it "..just one more crime by the Iraqi regime.." The TV anchors went beyond reporting the news to vying with each other to express their outrage - a Fox commentator said that "..this proves this is an evil regime..", another said "... what can you do about the Geneva Convention, Iraq doesn't follow it...", Tony Snow denounced it as ".. a grotesque violation of the Geneva Convention..", ABC's Charlie Gibson expressed his shock, etc. Their 'shock', 'shock' was curious, given that these same channels had broadcast footage of Iraqi POWs. While following coverage on ABC, MSNBC, Fox, CNN, etc. this author had seen at least four TV reports dealing with Iraqi POWs. In one the embedded reporter showed four Iraqi POWs - they were on the ground approximately six feet apart and the reporter and camera went from one to the next filming them. A running commentary from the reporter pointed out that the first had a bottle of water he had been given, that the second had taken off his shoes and put them on the ground behind him as he attempted to sleep, that the third was seated under a blanket, etc. As the reporter squatted and pointed out a packet of MREs that the third POW had been given (even picking it up for the camera to show) the POW's face was clearly visible. In another the embedded reporter showed a number of POWs being processed - a line of them were lying face down on the ground, the reporter pointed out their arms restrained behind them, tied at the wrists with plastic restraints.. They were being processed, searched, and then put on a truck to be taken to a holding area. While clearly the motivations were different - the Iraqis cynically seeking propaganda value in the Arab "street," the embedded reporters just reporting how things are going with 'their' units - if merely showing the POWs is a violation of the Geneva Convention then the "outrage," "shock," and "disgust" expressed by the TV anchors is strange given the film they have shown. Less excited than the TV anchors, when asked about this President Bush was on the money, insisting that any POWs should be humanely treated.
    • With many in the United States and across the world seemingly unconvinced of the evil of the Saddam Hussein regime and the need to end it, ABC's Charlie Gibson felt compelled to say ".. in the pantheon of dreadful things done by this regime, showing the faces of American dead ranks right up there..." With this fatuous statement he successfully trivialized Saddam's evil - as if some TV footage is as bad as Saddam impoverishing his country through a decade of war, using chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Kurds, having tens or hundreds of thousands of his countrymen killed, invading his neighbors, having the southern marshes drained, having people tortured with electric shocks and vats of acids, supporting international terrorism, and seeking to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons!!
    • A reporter in Baghdad breathlessly marveled at the fact that the power was still on and the city lit up... While OPED30 had called for the civilian infrastructure to be spared as much as possible, the electricity could be left on at the moment not just out of a concern with the civilians, but also because it can help with ongoing bomb damage assessment...
    • One reporter who has done a great job of reporting has been ABC's Ted Koppel... Besides his insightful reporting, when Charlie Gibson was in the midst of his paroxysm of horror at the showing of dead bodies, Koppel felt compelled to remind him that ABC had shown dead (both American and foreign....) on multiple occasions. Later in the evening Koppel interviewed an officer about an engagement in which U.S. troops had evaded an ambush and destroyed the attacking force. At the end of this reportage Koppel showed a close up of two of the dead Iraqi soldiers, close enough to see the flies on the body..... No sugar-coating or pap here...

Microfinance

119 loans and counting since February 2008, via Kiva. But is this doing any good, beyond making the lender (this blogger) feel good? Answer: the jury is out on microfinance. While it would seem (in theory) "obvious" that these programs would be positive for the recipients of the loans, unfortunately it is unclear that overall microfinance actually seriously reduces poverty...

Some on-line sites: Kiva - MicroPlace - MyC4 - 51Give - Wokai - UYDO

Sunday, September 6, 2009

UMID M1 - another comparison

UMID MI first look showed the M1 unboxing, as well as pictures of it side by side with a desktop, Vaio laptop, a Flipstart, a Blackberry Bold, and a Zaurus SL-C3000. Here it is alongside a Nokia E90 Communicator:

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Intl Vulture Awareness Day

September the 5th is International Vulture Awareness Day 2009. From the IVAD 2009 web site "Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in many areas that they occur. Populations of many species are under pressure and some species are facing extinction. The International Vulture Awareness Day has grown from Vulture Awareness Days run by the Birds of Prey Working Group in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England, who decided to work together and expand the initiative into an international event."

Photo Gallery of 10 Vulture Species — International Vulture Awareness Day!

Blog entries mentioning vultures:

Misc updates: vultures needed - Jul 26th, 2009
Science and side effects... - Oct 29th, 2008

Tempest in a tea pot

Recently the CEO of Whole Foods Market Inc., John Mackey, penned an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on health care reform that has caused quite a stir. For the 'sin' of opposing and criticizing the proposed Democratic-led versions of health care (albeit indirectly), he has been roasted in the blogosphere and there are moves afoot to organize boycotts of Whole Foods. So, what did Mackey say that was so outrageous?

  • Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSAs). The combination of high-deductible health insurance and HSAs is one solution that could solve many of our health-care problems. For example, Whole Foods Market pays 100% of the premiums for all our team members who work 30 hours or more per week (about 89% of all team members) for our high-deductible health-insurance plan. We also provide up to $1,800 per year in additional health-care dollars through deposits into employees' Personal Wellness Accounts to spend as they choose on their own health and wellness. Money not spent in one year rolls over to the next and grows over time. Our team members therefore spend their own health-care dollars until the annual deductible is covered (about $2,500) and the insurance plan kicks in. This creates incentives to spend the first $2,500 more carefully. Our plan's costs are much lower than typical health insurance, while providing a very high degree of worker satisfaction.
  • Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits. Now employer health insurance benefits are fully tax deductible, but individual health insurance is not. This is unfair.
  • Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.
  • Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying.
  • Enact tort reform to end the ruinous lawsuits that force doctors to pay insurance costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These costs are passed back to us through much higher prices for health care.
  • Make costs transparent so that consumers understand what health-care treatments cost. How many people know the total cost of their last doctor's visit and how that total breaks down? What other goods or services do we buy without knowing how much they will cost us?
  • Enact Medicare reform. We need to face up to the actuarial fact that Medicare is heading towards bankruptcy and enact reforms that create greater patient empowerment, choice and responsibility.

  • Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.


Read 'The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare: Eight things we can do to improve health care without adding to the deficit" for the entire piece.

OK, so what caused the outpouring of vitriol? After reading the oped this blogger isn't exactly sure. The eight actual recommendations made by Mackey (quoted above) are fairly unobjectionable, even if one does not feel that they are the solution... He also says that the current rates of deficit are not sustainable (something that is the position of the Obama administration); agrees for the need for health care reform (OK); that reforms be financially responsible (same position as the Obama administration); and that freedom of choice be maintained (ditto). Where he differs is regarding the role of government (he is against) and whether health care is a "right" (he says not).

OK, so folks can have differing opinions and still have a civil debate, or at least they should. Unfortunately for many this is not the case, from the screaming "death panel" folks on the right, to the ones throwing stones at Mackey and calling for boycotts on the left. Seeing the "Yoo-hoos" and "boycotters" one is forced to sympathize with Mercutio! Let's see if the President can "reset" the debate with his address o both houses of Congress next week!

Quick side notes: The board of Whole Foods really should severely chastise or even get rid of Mackey. Having an opinion one way or another is OK, but for the CEO of a public company to take a public position on a critical, political issue (not directly related to the company) that risks hurting the company... well, that is a breach of his fiduciary duty that is unacceptable. There should be consequences. As for those unhappy with Mackey's editorial, starting boycotts is really not the answer. Even were this to hurt Whole Foods' (e.g. by reducing sales) it would probably only be felt by the cashiers, shelf stockers, and other employees, and would not affect the object of their ire...

Previous entries on hospitals & health care:

That explains it... (death panels) - Sep 1st, 2009
Health care re-form IX (Apologies due) - Aug 30th, 2009
Health care re-form VIII (More nonsense) - Aug 28th, 2009
Health care re-form VII (Nonsense) - Aug 26th, 2009
Health care re-form VI (Effectiveness) - Aug 15th, 2009
Health care re-form V (The sales job) - Aug 14th, 2009
Health care re-form IV (What is it?) - Aug 13th, 2009
Health care re-form III (Why we spend more) - Aug 8th, 2009
Health care re-form II (P4P) - Aug 4th, 2009
Health care re-form I (Issues) - Aug 4th, 2009
So? - Jul 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jul 12th, 2009
Random charts... - May 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - May 9th, 2009
Wyeth v. Levine - Mar 22nd, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - III - Mar 22nd, 2009
Random chart... - Feb 1st, 2009
Financial crisis & hospitals - II - Jan 27th, 2009
Random chart... - Jan 26th, 2009
Hospitals' financial update - Dec 25th, 2008
Good for the goose - Dec 11th, 2008
Studies of interest - IV - Nov 16th, 2008
Studies of interest - II - Nov 16th, 2008
Financial crisis & hospitals - I - Nov 14th, 2008

 
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