This is just odd. In the middle of a recession, after lambasting executives for flying on expensive corporate jets after receiving millions in taxpayer bailout funds, the House has approved $550 million to buy eight new jets for use by members of Congress and their staff, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Lawmakers in the House last week added funds to buy those planes, and plus funds to buy an additional two 737s and two Gulfstream V planes. The purchases must still be approved by the Senate. The Air Force version of the Gulfstream V each costs $66 million, according to the Department of Defense, and the 737s cost about $70 million.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Department of Defense didn't request the additional planes and doesn't need them. "We ask for what we need and only what we need," he told reporters Wednesday. "We've always frowned upon earmarks and additives that are above and beyond what we ask for."

But don't worry! The Journal also reports that most travel "must be approved by congressional committees." So we can rest assured that even if some freewheeling spenders in Congress want to abuse their travel privileges, others will step in as champions of fiscal responsibility. The Senate still needs to sign off on the decision, but its track record is not promising either—or perhaps their champions of fiscal responsibility were absent earlier this month when Congress approved a tour of Europe for Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and three other senators and their spouses.

"It's obviously an economically difficult time in this country, so every decision such as this will be looked at with more scrutiny than in times of prosperity" says Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "There could indeed be outcry by citizens of this country." But, he says, congressional accountability will depend on how incensed constituents get about wasteful spending. With the public focused on the healthcare debate, an issue that directly impacts their wallets, these kinds of proposals could slip below the radar.

Green College Guide

If you’re as skeptical of US News & World Report’s college lists as I am, you might want to take a look at a different way of ranking colleges: The College Sustainability Report Card. The 2009 edition was recently released, and the evaluators report some encouraging news: Two out of three schools improved their overall grade between 2008 and 2009. More than four in five schools improved from 2007 to 2009. CSRC evaluates schools on a host of criteria, including energy use, dining hall food sourcing, recycling, green building, endowment transparency, and investment priorities.

Like any college ranking system, the CSRC has its flaws. One that bugs me: Since only colleges with endowments of $160 million or more were considered, some smaller schools with excellent environmental programs (such as those in the Eco League) were left out. It’s a shame, since these schools are small and nimble, they often have the flexibility to implement new ideas more quickly than big colleges. (Some progress: When I blogged about this problem in 2007, the Report Card evaluated only the 200 best endowed schools in the US; now it considers the top 300.)

List of “overall sustainability leaders” (colleges that were graded A-, the highest grade the evaluators gave out) after the jump.




 

Crime and Punishment

Good news, Californians!  Our state may be a shambles, debt-ridden and stuck in an endless political quagmire, but Arnold Schwarzenegger has just signed a bill that makes it safe to organize March Madness pools in your workplace:

The new law changes the penalty for participation in a non-commercial or an office "sports betting pool" from a misdemeanor, punishable by fines up to $1,000, to an infraction, punishable by a fine not to exceed $250.

Since we're so fond of naming laws after people, I think we should call this one Margaret's Law, after Margaret Hamblin, the 76-year-old grandmother who was busted in 2006 for running a $50 football pool at an Elks Lodge.  She was fined $130 and had her fingerprints and mug shot taken after she was cited for running a betting pool.

But no longer!  We're free of the jackbooted tyranny of the office pool gestapo!  Surely marijuana legalization can't be far behind?

Juan Cole says the possible death of Baitullah Mahsud, leader of Pakistan's Taliban Movement and likely mastermind of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, is only the second most important news out of Pakistan:

The really big news out of Pakistan in the last week was the  finding of the restored Supreme Court that Gen. Pervez Musharraf's emergency decree of November, 2007, was unconstitutional. The ruling has larger implications, in perhaps suggesting that all of Pakistan's military coups have been unconstitutional. This is the first time that the Pakistani Supreme Court has so forcefully stood up to the military.

If the American press and political establishment was serious about supporting democracy in Pakistan and the Muslim World, we'd have seen an avalanche of comment praising the Supreme Court ruling as a victory for democracy. I did a keyword search at Lexis under television transcripts and could not find any evidence that anyone in national television or radio except Julie McCarthy at NPR even mentioned the epochal Pakistani Supreme Court ruling!

Consider it reported.  I confess to some skepticism about how seriously to take a court decree that military coups are unconstitutional, since military coup leaders don't generally pay a lot of attention to the niceties of judicial review in the first place.  But Prof. Cole calls it "a bigger turning point in Pakistani history than any we have seen since 1947," so it's worth knowing about.

On Wednesday, the American Psychological Association made headlines by repudiating gay-to-straight therapy. In a report, the APA found that not only is there no evidence that the practice actually works, but it can also lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Considering that so-called "reparative therapy" has been enthusiastically championed by the religious right, you might be surprised to learn that they're touting the report as a major victory.

Confused? Here's what happened. In addition to instructing members not to seek to change a patient's sexual orientation via therapy, the APA also issued additional guidelines advising therapists how to deal with a patient struggling with their sexual identity. And these guidelines explicitly state that it may sometimes be appropriate for a therapist to help a client deny his sexual orientation because of his faith.

Need To Read: August 7, 2009

Some Friday web content you should check out:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So is my colleague Daniel Schulman, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

 

Soldiers with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division fire a 120mm mortar at the hills surrounding Forward Operating Base Kalagush, Aug. 2. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

Granny Conspiracy: Who's behind misinformation that the Dems' healthcare reform will kill olds? Kevin Drum and James Ridgeway explain.

Ants in the Pants Syndrome: Is Restless Leg Syndrome real, or a Big Pharma invention?

Chemical Switch: The EPA may be revising its position on perchlorates in water.

Polar Bear Soup: By 2070, the Arctic could be a polluted soup, scientists say. [New Scientist]

Obama's New Tactic: Obama's campaign organization gets fired up about healthcare.

Public Enemy: Insurance companies might like the likely-to-fail healthcare "co-ops" as alternatives to the public model.

Green Label: The USDA is proposing labels for products using renewable plant and animal sources. [Environmental News Network]

Vive La Healthcare

David Gauthier-Villars has a piece about France's healthcare system in the Wall Street Journal today that's worth a read.  Like everyone, the French have been fighting a rearguard action against financing problems in their system for as long as I've been reading about it, but that means something a little different there than it does here:

Despite the structural differences between the U.S. and French systems, both face similar root problems: rising drug costs, aging populations and growing unemployment, albeit for slightly different reasons. In the U.S., being unemployed means you might lose your coverage; in France, it means less tax money flowing into Assurance Maladie's coffers.

....Today, Assurance Maladie covers about 88% of France's population of 65 million. The remaining 12%, mainly farmers and shop owners, get coverage through other mandatory insurance plans, some of which are heavily government-subsidized. About 90% of the population subscribes to supplemental private health-care plans.

Italics mine.  Despite the story's focus on France's "financing woes" — a problem shared by every healthcare system in the world — the chart on the right tells the real story.  The French spend a third less than we do per person and have a growth rate about a third lower than ours.  We should be so lucky as to have woes like that.  Their healthcare costs may be rising, but their tax-funded system reins in costs better than ours and still remains among the best in the world.

No system is perfect, but the French do pretty well.  Service is top notch, costs are reasonable, everyone is covered, administrative costs are low, the private sector is substantial, and supplemental insurance is common for people who want more than the standard level of care.  It is, ironically, a very American approach to universal care.  If we had our heads screwed on straight, we could do a lot worse than to adopt it wholesale.

Starkman on Taibbi

Over at CJR today, Dean Starkman has an almost pitch perfect review of Matt Taibbi's famous (or, depending on your point of view, infamous) evisceration of Goldman Sachs in last month's Rolling StoneGo read it.  Both his praise and his criticism match mine nearly perfectly.  There's hardly a word I disagree with.