140 Characters Mst B Stopt!

The Twitter craze is insane. Now there's a Twitter conference in New York. Who are these characters? Who are these exhibitors? This post is 141 characters to spite them.

Psoriasis Linked To Other Diseases

My roommate Mike has psoriasis, which, according to WebMD, is "a reddish, scaly rash often located over the surfaces of the elbows, knees, scalp, and around or in the ears, navel, genitals or buttocks." Luckily, his case is mild (it's only on his elbows), and you can't really notice it unless he's playing basketball. But after reading about a new study that links psoriasis to heart disease and other serious health problems, I'm worried about him.

Yesterday, Forbes reported that "people with psoriasis face an increased risk of major cardiovascular disease and death." The research they discuss, which included data from a Veterans Administration medical facility study, compared 3,236 people suffering from the skin disease to 2,500 psoriasis-free individuals and found a 78 percent higher incidence of heart disease, a 70 percent higher incidence of stroke and a 98 percent higher incidence of peripheral arterial disease (blockage of arteries in the legs) in the psoriasis group."

Without trying to sound preachy, I hope that those of you out there with psoriasis take these new findings as a wake-up call to stop partaking in activities that will increase your risk of heart disease or stroke, because you are likely already more genetically predisposed to these problems. Mike and I have decided to boycott red meat for a while and we plan to choose workouts over continuing our Woody Allen marathon.

Obama's "Groundbreaking" Climate Report. Meh.

The release today of the first climate report from Barack Obama's presidency prompted a dizzy reaction in the press. The AP called it "the strongest language on climate change ever to come out of the White House" and the Washington Post pointed out that it called evidence of climate change "unequivocal." Unveiled by Obama's scientific advisor and packaged by a San Francisco-based environmental PR firm, the report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, helped convey the idea that Obama was breaking from the Bush years to tackle climate change head-on. Nevermind that almost nothing of substance in the report is different from a draft that the Bush administration had released last summer.

Take this line from the executive summary, which so impressed the Post: "Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced." Here's what the the Bush administration's draft said: "Global warming is unequivocal and is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollutants." Not much difference there.

Aside from the natural gap in polish between a rough and final draft, very little seperates the two documents. The Bush version prominently states that the impacts of human-induced climate change "are apparent now throughout the United States," that "climate changes are occurring faster that projected," and that reducing climate change will entail "reducing emissions to limit future warming." It's as if the report had been written by Al Gore.

Of course, Bush didn't want to release this report. The first draft, made public last summer, was published four years late and only after an environmental group successfully sued for its release. Yet that doesn't make Obama's decision to hype the final version any more impressive. It comes at no political cost to him but could be seen as a way to placate environmentalists. Many green groups are on the verge of mutiny or have declared it over the Waxman/Markey climate bill, an unconscionable giveaway to big polluters, in their view, that Obama has called "a historic leap." Those groups won't be impressed by today's news, but some of their supporters will.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Twitter was scheduled to go down for scheduled maintenance today, but it was postponed at the request of the State Department:

Confirmation that the U.S. government had contacted Twitter came as the Obama administration sought to avoid suggestions it was meddling in Iran's internal affairs as the Islamic Republic battled to control deadly street protests over the election result.

....Twitter Inc said in a blog post it delayed a planned upgrade because of its role as an "important communication tool in Iran." The hour-long maintenance was put back to 5 p.m. EDT/2100 GMT, which corresponds to 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday in Iran.

Fascinating.  The original upgrade schedule would have cut service in the middle of the day in Tehran.

Via Sullivan, of course.

Wall Street Breathes a Sigh of Relief

It's still good advice to say that we should wait until tomorrow, when the administration's new financial regulations are formally unveiled, before we start taking potshots at them.  But if Binyamin Appelbaum's report in the Washington Post is on target — well, we might as well get started today after all.

Let's see.  The SEC will expand its database of securities and will "encourage" the adoption of standardized contract language.  Yippee.  Credit rating agencies will be required to make "a clear distinction" between the ratings assigned to asset-backed securities and other forms of debt such as corporate bonds.  This is about #287 on the list of regulatory problems we need to solve.  And then there's this:

Sales of asset-backed securities provided the bulk of funding for mortgages and other consumer lending during the economic boom, as investors spent trillions of dollars buying what was often advertised as a safe, more lucrative alternative to ordinary bonds....The administration concluded that securitization encouraged looser lending standards, because companies that sold loans to investors had little reason to care whether borrowers could repay those loans.

....The administration's proposal is not just an attempt to clean up the securitization market. The goal is also to help revive that market, which has seen almost no activity in the last year....The final component addresses financial incentives, for instance requiring firms to retain a [5%] stake in each security. The plan also would prohibit firms from hedging that risk, meaning that they could not make an offsetting investment.

Are they kidding?  First, how do you prevent banks from hedging risk?  There are just too many clever ways to do it.  The SEC will never be able to keep up with this.  Second, 5%?  Seriously?  What's the point?  There are lots and lots of recklessly constructed securities that are enormously profitable even if you know to a near certainty that you're likely to lose 5% of the value sometime down the road.  That's not nearly enough to rein in the bubbling endorphins and giddy short-term greed that drives credit bubbles.  And it's especially not enough if Wall Street continues paying its traders and executives based on how much money they earned in the past 365 days.

Look: I'll wait until tomorrow, and then listen to what smart people have to say about the full regulatory package.  But if this is the starting point of negotiations as this package heads off to Congress, things are really, really not looking good.

Letterman Protest Misses Real Rape Crisis

By the time the crowd gathers outside David Letterman’s studio today, it will be midnight in Iran, and hundreds of thousands of citizens who spent the day peacefully protesting for fair elections will—hopefully—be sleeping safely in their homes. Halfway around the world, meanwhile, a presumably smaller crowd will gather demanding something very different:  They’ll want a 62-year-old comedian and television show host fired.
 
By now, we all know what happened: David Letterman made a crude joke—punchline, inappropriate sexual innuendo—about one of Gov. Sarah Palin’s daughters. And because the joke involved sex, and the daughter is underage, and Palin is a media manipulation machine, this has become a Very Big Deal. Letterman, clearly, loves pedophilia! Sexual exploitation! Rape!  

Controlling Healthcare Costs

Can Barack Obama and congressional Democrats control healthcare costs?  Megan McArdle doubts it:

I'd say we have substantial empirical evidence that we are not going to control the health care cost inflation which is busting Medicare's budget, much less the new costs the administration is planning to add.  We have been trying to control health care costs since the 1970s made it clear that Medicare was going to get really, really expensive.  And any idea that you care to name, from comparative effectiveness research to healthcare IT to preventive medicine . . . these have all been on the table for more than thirty years, under one name or another.  They haven't happened.

The answer that those promising magical cost reductions need to ask is "Why haven't they happened?" and "What has changed to make them feasible now?"  But when I ask this question, I get angry demands that I put forward my plan for cost control, rather than merely critiquing everyone else's.  This seems rather like demanding that I put forward my design for a perpetual motion machine before I am allowed to point out problems in the US energy market.

This is an entirely reasonable position.  But I suspect the answer to cost containment lies less in technical arguments about healthcare policy than it does in arguments about taxation.  Right now, not only is America is rich enough to afford expensive healthcare, but the cost of that care is largely hidden.  For seniors, it comes via Medicare, and Medicare taxes haven't gone up much recently.  Its problems are still largely in the future.  The rest of us mostly get healthcare from our employers, and the only cost increases we see are higher copays — which are painful, but not quite painful enough to spur us to do much about them.

So what will spur us to get serious about cost containment?  My guess is: universal healthcare, paid for out of taxes.  A taxpayer funded system actually makes healthcare costs more visible than our current system, and a universal system is much bigger than Medicare alone.  A universal public system will, eventually, require painful tax increases, and that's the point at which the public will finally be willing to accept cost containment measures.

And if it doesn't?  Then it means, via revealed preferences, that Americans want expensive, unlimited healthcare even when the costs are fully and completely known to them.  That's not my preferred outcome — I think a lot of that money could be far better used on other things — but if that's what taxpayers turn out to want, then that's what taxpayers turn out to want.  That's how market democracies work.  My guess, though, is that it's not what they want.  They just don't know it yet because they're too far removed from the costs of the current system.  National healthcare will change that.

Who's Thinner: Owners or Renters?

A new study from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School finds that women homeowners are an average of 12 pounds heavier than renters. They're also more aggravated and spend less time socializing.

Thing is, it's hard to tell why. Figuring it out, the article notes, presents a chicken-and-egg type problem, since two lines of homeowner reasoning are possible:

a) Now that I've gone and bought a house, I may as well make owning my house worthwhile by maxing and relaxing in it as much as humanly possible.

b) I really like maxing and relaxing. Much more than, say, going for a walk with my friends. Gosh, it'd be great to have my very own M&R temple.

Previous studies have shown that homeowners are happier than renters, but they didn't control for external factors, like whether or not the subjects have kids. This study did.

Have you recently switched from renting to owning or vice versa? What's it like?

HT @aarieff.

Obama Keeps the Twitter Revolution Online

Publicly, Obama administration has been playing it pretty cool on the Iranian election, but it seems that the first tech-savvy White House has already played an important role on the backend of the Twitter Revolution. Reuters reports that over the weekend the State Department urged Twitter not to shut down for an upgrade that would have cut off service to oppostion tweeters in Iran. "We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication," says an unnamed State official. Twitter delayed the upgrade with no mention of any official pressure. Does the administration deserve props for getting it, technologically and politically? Or should it have kept its hands off a situation that bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan were all over?

Waterboarding Update

Torture apologists are fond of telling us that "only" three prisoners have ever been waterboarded.  Two of those three were Abu Zubaida and Khalid Sheik Mohammed.  Today, documents released in response to an ACLU lawsuit shed some new light on both of them:

An al-Qaeda associate captured by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques said his jailers later told him they had mistakenly thought he was the No. 3 man in the organization's hierarchy and a partner of Osama bin Laden, according to newly released excerpts from a 2007 hearing.

"They told me, 'Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter,' " said Abu Zubaida, speaking in broken English, according to the new transcript of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

....Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times [...] said he lied in response to questions about bin Laden's location.

"Where is he? I don't know," Mohammed said. "Then he torture me. Then I said yes, he is in this area."

I'm exaggerating when I say that this is really "new" information, but it is more extensive information than we've had before.  And it's not exactly a great advertisement for either the efficacy or the morality of waterboarding.  Adam Serwer has more here.