2007 - %3, October

Brooding With Beirut

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 10:18 PM EDT
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Beirut's newest release, The Flying Club Cup, has been haunting me for more than a week.The album, released by Ba Da Bing Records earlier this month, is sentimental, pretty, melancholy, and eery. And I can't get enough.

The 21-year-old Zach Condon, the brains of Beirut, made the album as an homage to the culture, music, history, and fashion of France, where he moved after spending two years studying Balkan folk music and Eastern European music scales. The album is an indie kid's interpretation/infatuation with nostalgic notions of European sounds and styles; sort of like a hipster marching band parading through the Old World.

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Safety Commission Says No to Toy Safety?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 9:20 PM EDT

Yesterday, after the summer's spate of high-profile toy recalls, the Senate Commerce committee passed the most significant legislation affecting CPSC since the agency was created more than thirty years ago. Sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), the bill increases CPSC's budget from $63 million to $142.7 million by 2015, and raises the cap on civil penalties the agency can levy against companies that hide product defects, from $1.8 million to $100 million. The bill gives CPSC a couple of new responsibilities—the agency will credential independent third-party testing labs whose job it will be to safety-test toys, and it will have the authority to investigate and respond to safety-related whistleblower complaints made by company employees.

Acting CPSC chairman Nancy Nord opposes the bill. Voicing her objections in a five-page letter to the committee, Nord argued that CPSC would be overwhelmed by its new responsibilities, and that many of the bill's provisions would do little more than increase litigation. Nord doesn't think CPSC should be in charge of credentialing testing labs, she wants nothing to do with whistleblower complaints, and, using a bizarre logic that apparently makes sense to her (and to industry), concludes that increasing the civil penalty cap to $100 million will make it more likely that truly dangerous products will not reach CPSC's radar screen. Overall, Nord said, the bill would have the "unintended consequence of hampering, rather than furthering consumer product safety."

Most of Nord's complaints are identical to those voiced by industry trade groups, chief among them, the National Association of Manufacturers, whose chief lobbyist, Michael Baroody, President Bush had nominated to fill Nord's job a year earlier. (Baroody withdrew his nomination before this Senate confirmation hearings). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has called on Nord to resign. That the agency needs more resources and authority is clear, Pelosi said; the problem is that Nord simply does not understand "the gravity of the situation."

Today Nord issued a statement saying she has no intention of stepping down.

Consumer groups, who have been pushing for many of the bill's provisions for decades, were jubilant after the Commerce committee vote. "This bill is the most comprehensive product safety bill to have emerged from any House of Congress in decades," said Rachel Weintraub, general counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. "It makes giant strides forward in solving problems that have been plaguing CPSC for years."

The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill by Christmas. I write about the CPSC's history of mishandling toy safety regulation in the current issue of Mother Jones. Read it here.

—E. Marla Felcher

New Webb Sign-On Letter On Iran

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 9:10 PM EDT

Carah Ong of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation reports that Sen. James Webb has started circulating a sign-on letter on Iran. The whole letter is available at the link, but the most important sentence is: "We wish to emphasize that no congressional authority exists for unilateral military action against Iran." It now has 22 Senate co-signers. (The list should be available soon.)

What's the significance of the letter? The answer has three parts:

1. Legally speaking, the letter has no significance whatsoever.
2. Moreover, it's legally false.
3. The legal aspect is essentially irrelevant. It's the political aspect that matters, and here it might have some impact.

Here's a more detailed explanation:

Big Pharma Pressures Doctors in the Developing World

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 5:15 PM EDT

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A new air conditioner, washing machine, microwave, camera, television, expensive crystals, and a luxury vacation.

A fabulous Showcase Showdown package? Nope. Just some of the loot that pharmaceutical companies like GSK, Novartis, Roche, and Wyeth are offering doctors in the developing world in exchange for prescribing their drugs, according to a report just released by Consumers International.

If all that schwag isn't enough to raise your hackles, consider the fact that as part of their promotional strategies, drug companies often bend the truth about the pills they're pushing. An example from the report:

An article in the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana's (PSGH) newsletter claimed "Lifestyle modifications [such as diet and exercise] alone are usually ineffective in maintaining weight loss on a long term basis so there is usually the need to institute supported drug therapy." While other types of treatments are mentioned, Roche's Xenical is the only branded product named in the article. Below the packaged Xenical pills, as pictured on the left, the article advised readers to get customers to take one pill after a fatty meal.

No wonder, then, that another recent study found that 50 percent of drugs in the developing world are misprescribed.

Last Hired, First Fired but Merrill Lynch's Black CEO Had it Coming

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 4:18 PM EDT

Given all the turmoil that's been rocking the world of high finance, it wasn't surprising to hear that the first head had been chopped off—E. Stanley O'Neal at Merrill Lynch. What was surprising was finding out that he was black and that no protest squads have been dispatched to demand he be reinstated.

I'm money-stupid so what finance news I get is inadvertent, sandwiched between things I actually pay attention to on the radio. If my friends at NPR discussed O'Neal's race, it must have either been during a Manilow-moment or during mommy drive-time when I was rocking to "There's a Hole In My Bucket." Either way, it's remarkable that someone who follows 'black stuff' for a living wasn't hit over the head with discussions of the black CEO who got the boot, just with a CEO who got the boot. It's progress that black robber-barons, while still rare, are common enough that we forget their race after the initial hooplah of mag covers, fawning profiles and NAACP Image Awards and it's progress that, when they screw up, nobody black gives a damn. (Maybe that's because making Wall Street money makes you 'white,' and therefore on your own when you screw up.)

If you want to flashback to your freshman year of college, check the World Socialist Web Site's take on O'Neal and the evils of capitalism in general. Otherwise, check out Clarence Page on why black failure can sometimes equal black equality. As he notes:

O'Neal's departure is a disappointment to those of us who praised his rise after 16 years at the company to become the first African-American to lead a major Wall Street firm. But just as his rise was a sign of progress, so is his slide out the door, as long as it indicates that women and minorities have to meet the same rigorous profitmaking standards that white men do. ...America truly is a land where any kid can grow up to be president of, at least, a multibillion-dollar corporation."

And where any kid can get his hat handed to him for screwing up.

Update: Second Plain Dealer Blogger Leaves

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 4:14 PM EDT

The second of the liberal bloggers on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's political group blog Wide Open has decided to resign over the paper's decision to fire the first liberal blogger, Jeff Coryell. Coryell's termination was due to pressure from Repbulican Congressman Steve LaTourette.

The second blogger's name is Jill Miller Zimon, of Writes Like She Talks, and she's given money to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (D); if that means not writing about Brown or his opponents in the future, she's jumping ship. Her thoughts are after the jump.

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Cleveland Plain-Dealer Fires Blogger After Congressman Complains

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 3:29 PM EDT

In August, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hired four political bloggers, two on the right and two on the left, to write a group blog called "Wide Open."

One of the bloggers on the left was Jeff Coryell, known as YellowDogSammy on Daily Kos. In previous blogging positions, but never with Wide Open, Coryell had frequently criticized Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio's 14th district. Coryell had contributed $100 to LaTourette's opponent in the 2008 election. LaTourette complained to the online editor at the Plain Dealer (presumably on the assumption that Coryell would be a pain in LaTourette's side throughout the campaign) who then took the issue to the top editor at the newspaper. They asked Coryell to never write about LaTourette as a condition of working at the paper.

Bush PR Maven Hughes Quits for Texas

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 1:34 PM EDT

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The AP reports that longtime Bush aide Karen Hughes plans to retire from improving America's image in the world and return to Texas. Alas, she acknowledges, the job is far from done. "Hughes said ... improving the world's view of the United States is a 'long-term challenge' that will outlast her," the AP reports. No arguments there. A recent poll found Turkish approval of the United States fell to nine percent -- the lowest in history. Another poll found fewer than one in five Pakistanis have a positive view of the United States. Hughes, a former TV journalist in Texas and press aide to then Governor Bush, was in the job two years.

Waterboarding is Torture... Period

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 1:30 PM EDT

In light of Mike Mukasey's waffling on whether waterboarding is torture, and Mort Kondracke's recent statement that the procedure is no big deal ("I'm sure it feels like torture, you know, it doesn't result in any lasting damage, but it feels like torture.") I want to point you all to a blog post over at Small Wars Journal that I found via The Plank. The title? "Waterboarding is Torture... Period." And the man making the argument is an authority.

As a former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the US Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego, California I know the waterboard personally and intimately. SERE staff were required undergo the waterboard at its fullest. I was no exception. I have personally led, witnessed and supervised waterboarding of hundreds of people...
Having been subjected to them all, I know these techniques, if in fact they are actually being used, are not dangerous when applied in training for short periods. However, when performed with even moderate intensity over an extended time on an unsuspecting prisoner – it is torture, without doubt. Couple that with waterboarding and the entire medley not only "shock the conscience" as the statute forbids -it would terrify you. Most people can not stand to watch a high intensity kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American....

Anti-Drug Ads That Might Actually Work

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 1:04 PM EDT

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Ever since the first President Bush held up a bag of crack at a 1989 press conference, the federal government has spent many millions of dollars on anti-drug advertising campaigns targeted at teenagers. All those fried-egg spots ("This is your brain on drugs") have been the butt of many a teenage joke, and as it turned out, they were highly effective at actually encouraging kids to smoke pot.

Some new anti-drug ads now airing in Montana, however, might actually be working, perhaps because they weren't made by dorks in Washington. The new campaign was produced by the Montana Meth Project, a private group founded by a local rancher. The ads are way edgier than anything the drug czar's office ever came up with, including one featuring a near-naked girl in a hotel room after her boyfriend pimps her for drug money and another of some kids dumping an unconscious girl on a hospital driveway before speeding away.

A new study suggests that Montana's ads have reduced teen meth use in the state by 45 percent, a figure compelling enough for the White House to get on the bandwagon and broadcast Montana's graphic ads in other states.