2009 - %3, January

Today's Two Minutes Hate

| Sat Jan. 31, 2009 1:35 PM EST

TODAY'S TWO MINUTES HATE....Here's the latest reason to hate credit card companies: Shop at Wal-Mart, obviously a sign of financial distress, and your credit limit gets lowered. Hallelujah!

This is from American Express, which has now decided to hunker down and simply lie about their habit of doing this. Compare and contrast the following news accounts. When Kevin Johnson returned from his honeymoon last year he got a letter from Amex saying, "Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history with American Express." Here's what they told the Atlanta Journal Constitution about this in December:

"We're just doing this to manage risk," said Lisa A. Gonzalez, an American Express spokeswoman. She declined to say which retailers or mortgage companies are associated with consumers with higher default rates. She said it makes sense to examine these factors because "customers who have loans outstanding with certain lenders or customers who make transactions with certain merchants tend to have a higher proportion of credit issues or a higher probability of default."

And here's what they told the New York Times this week:

"The letters were wrong to imply we were looking at specific merchants," said Susan Korchak, a company spokeswoman....Now, the company says that there never was such a list. So what about the language in its letters to cardholders, which calls out particular "establishments" where cardholders had shopped, I asked. Well, apparently that was all just a big misunderstanding, despite the number of people who must have been in on drafting the notes in the first place.

So: a month ago monitoring your transactions with "certain merchants" was a legitimate way of managing risk. This month the story is that they were never doing it in the first place. You betcha.

Bastards. I really hate these guys and their entire sleazy industry. More here. Kevin Johnson's website is here.

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*Picking Up

| Sat Jan. 31, 2009 1:49 AM EST

PICKING UP....David Cay Johnston is unhappy with the Obama press operation. It took a week for anyone at the White House press office to pick up the phone when he called, and when someone finally did things didn't get much better:

After a full week of such calls, a human being answers. But Ben LaBolt immediately bristles when asked to spell his name, refuses to give his job title, and says he is going "off the record" until I stop him to explain that the reporter grants that privilege, not the other way around — a basic journalistic standard that LaBolt seems unaware of. He soon hangs up without even hearing what I called to ask about.

A return call is answered by Priya Singh, who spells her name when asked, but does not know (or will not say) what her job title is and several times describes requests for information about how the Obama administration press office is operating as a "complaint" which she would pass on. She says she is not authorized to comment, though she at one point tells me she is a spokesperson.

....My questions to LaBolt and Singh prompted a return phone call the next day from Nick Shapiro, who spelled his name, but had to be prodded several times to give his job title: assistant press secretary.

During our brief conversation, Shapiro, like LaBolt (whose name Shapiro did not recognize), started one sentence with "off the record." Told that the journalist grants the privilege, and that none would be granted here, Shapiro expressed surprise. His surprise was double-barreled, at both the idea that the reporter issues any privilege and that any reporter would decline to talk "off the record."

"Off the record" has become a cancer. It's now practically a default presumption, rather than a rare exception granted for specific and justifiable reasons. Unfortunately, no one is willing to do anything about it. A few years ago the big newspapers all instituted policies that banned blind quotes unless there was a good case for them, but as near as I can tell the only result was to force their reporters to concoct ever more inventive ways of saying "because he wouldn't talk otherwise." Beyond that, life went on as usual.

Reporters are as much to blame for this as politicos, and Johnston concedes that some of what happened here may just be birthing pains. Everyone is new, policies haven't been set, equipment isn't all working, etc. etc. Let's hope so. Obama didn't have much of a reputation for openness with the press during his campaign, though, so it's worth holding his feet to the fire over this. Let's not have another Bush administration, please.

Michael Steele

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 8:40 PM EST

MICHAEL STEELE....I see that the candidate I was rooting for to head up the GOP has won:

It's official. The new face of the National Republican Party is Michael Steele, a 50-year-old African American, the first in the history of Abraham Lincoln's party.

Ah, but he's not just 50 years old. Steele was born on October 19, 1958, the exact same day as me. That's why I was rooting for him.

But it's not all sunshine on the Michael Steele front. Because of our shared birthday I once pinged him to be my friend on Facebook. He never responded. Very sad. I guess he didn't want to reach out.

Blackwell Acolyte Distraught at Steele Endorsement, Victory

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 6:26 PM EST

At a critical juncture in the voting for the new RNC Chair, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, one of the most conservative figures in the race, realized he was behind and endorsed eventual winner Michael Steele, who was the most moderate. The move left one Blackwell devotee, a conservative Ohio-based blogger named Matthew Naugle, stunned and angry. I have emailed with Naugle before about the GOP's push to modernize it's approach to technology. Here are his thoughts on Blackwell's endorsement and Steele's victory:

...all the technology in the world is meaningless without the right conservative message.
I run Ken Blackwell's Facebook page and Twitter page. I was also Ken Blackwell's campaign blogger and web guy in 2006. Ken Blackwell is my hero- my idol- my Goldwater...... but I couldn't be more disappointed in his endorsement today. No candidate was more un-Blackwell than Michael Steele.
Steele is new to the language of conservatism, and he was certainly the most liberal candidate running. He expressed his view that the Supreme Court should follow what stare decisis is on Roe V. Wade, has run GOPAC into the ground, and was actively involved with Christine Todd Whitman's Republican Leadership Council.
The Republican Party, with a John McCain candidacy, tried to win on a "big tent" platform and in the process lost its soul. Now, with the election of Steele, they have lost their mind.

Economy Killing Abusive Teen Programs

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 6:03 PM EST

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

There is a silver lining to this bleak economy: Abusive and ineffective "tough love" programs for teens are failing right and left.

In just the last few weeks, the notorious Tranquility Bay program in Jamaica, Spring Creek Lodge in Montana, and Pathway Family Center in Detroit and Ohio have all been shuttered.

Tranquility Bay was known for making kids kneel on concrete for days, using "restraint" so harsh that it broke bones. Both Tranquility Bay and Spring Creek Lodge were part of a network called the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP or WWASPS)—and the group's philosophy involves constant use of emotional attacks and humiliation in a rigid, structured day in order to break teens' spirits.

Spring Creek was notorious for a frigid, small isolation room called "the Hobbit"—sometimes teens were left there for months.

From Pathway—which was descended from the infamously abusive Straight Inc.—I received two separate accounts of suicide attempts by girls which were not reported to their parents, and many stories of the usual attack therapy and humiliation. Unfortunately, neither WWASP nor Pathway is completely dead yet: WWASP still has centers operating in the US and abroad, and Pathway has sites in Indiana: Porter and Indianapolis.

The media tends to present these closures as sad examples of needed services being cut—but in fact, teens are better off with no treatment than with treatment that often divides families and has characteristics known to produce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Family support tends to be crucial to long term recovery—and PTSD doubles the odds that a drug problem will become a lasting addiction.

Troubled teen programs were yet another sign of the bubble economy. Many were financed by mortgage and home equity loans because they cost thousands of dollars a month and because insurers, quite correctly, don't usually pay for programs that aren't proven to help.

Since there are proven alternatives for teens with drug and other problems that do not carry the risks of "tough love," we should greet the closings of these centers with glee.
And those who care about this issue should keep the pressure on so that the wounded programs finally die. After all, there are still teens suffering inside, being "treated" without dignity or respect—some of whom were just transferred from closed programs to other similar, sites.

Legislation to ban the most egregious practices is coming—and may well be strengthened now that the Democrats control Congress and the White House. But an even better outcome would be for the "troubled teen" industry to wither and be replaced by what the evidence shows works: community-based, family-centered, minimally restrictive, and youth-driven care.

Maia Szalavitz is the author of "Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids," and Senior Fellow at stats.org.

New RNC Chair Michael Steele's Hypocrisy on Barack Obama (Video)

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 5:36 PM EST

michael_steele250x200.jpg It turns out that Michael Steele — elected the first African-American chair of the Republican National Committee earlier this afternoon — has a situational opinion of Barack Obama and what his accomplishments mean for race in America. How else to explain the fact that when Steele talks about Obama, his thoughts change depending on his audience?

Here's Steele fielding a question about Obama from Tavis Smiley at the Black State of the Union conference, held in New Orleans in February 2008. Steele is speaking to a predominantly black audience. Video to your right.

I'm very proud to see Barack Obama do what Barack Obama has done and is doing. I am philosophically polar opposites with the man. But it doesn't change the fact that we are from the same community. And it doesn't diminish nor weaken my pride in what he's done. I would hope that all of us would be just as proud of an African-American Republican achieving such success.

Now here is Steele discussing Obama with NewsBusters.org, a conservative online news outlet, at the Republican National Convention. Video to your right, again.

Q: I wanted to get your take on the media coverage of Obama…
MS: It's been a joke, quite frankly. To put it bluntly. There's been no coverage. There's been coronation, there's been facilitation of his agenda….

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Ken Salazar: The Interior Department's New Sheriff

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 4:25 PM EST

salazar.jpg Remember the Interior Department's sex, drugs, and oil scandal? After investigating, the Interior Department released a September 2008 report that concluded Minerals Management Service (MMS) employees "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives." Several employees were terminated, but only there were only two subsequent convictions. (Read more about MMS corruption here and here.)

Well, the new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar plans to reopen the MMS investigations. From the Denver Post:

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that he has ordered a re-examination of the scandalized Interior Department division based in Lakewood, including why the U.S. Justice Department did not pursue more criminal prosecutions....

Salazar stressed that he wants to examine why Bush administration prosecutors in the public-integrity unit didn't pursue criminal cases against others.

"There's a new sheriff in town," Salazar said during a news conference at the MMS complex. "We will be visiting with the new U.S. attorney general and take a new look at it."

As TPMMuckraker notes, Salazar also mentioned re-opening investigations into the Steven Griles affair, in which the Interior Department's No. 2 was convicted in connection to the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Salazar's Wild West bluster, complete with bolo tie and cowboy hat, is certainly a welcome change to the industry sweetheart deals of the Bush years. But let's be honest: the Interior Department is a bureaucratic beast and old habits die hard, especially with the Bushies digging in.


Photo used under Creative Commons license.

Video: 1981 Report About "Reading News on Your Computer"

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 4:16 PM EST

Just imagine! Someday, far in the future, before you jet off in your hovercar to your job on the moon, your robot maid will bring you your morning paper on a computer, where you can read about universal health care! Okay, only one of those things actually ended up happening, although I do pay my house cleaners extra to talk like Twiki. But back in 1981, anything seemed possible, as evidenced by this news report from KRON-TV right here in San Francisco. They describe how, um, the San Francisco Chronicle "programmed" their paper into a computer in Columbus, Ohio (?!!) which one guy in North Beach could access via a gigantic red rotary phone to look at on his TV, "with the exception of pictures, ads, and the comics," after spending two hours to download it, at $5/hour. It's almost too good to be true.

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 January 2009

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 4:04 PM EST

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Last week I promised guest catblogging, and guest catblogging we shall have! This week's episode comes via my sister, who's doing some long-term catsitting for a friend and now has two new companions. That's Azrael on the left, examining that perennial cat favorite, a cardboard box, and Jasper on the right. Azrael is a cute little lap cat who (apparently) demands attention at all times and all places. Jasper is more the economy size, and my sister complains that he keeps her up at night by sleeping next to her and purring loudly. This sounds absurd to me, since purring is a well known tranquillizer, but there you have it. Welcome to catblogging, A&J. The usual suspects will return next week.

Seniors and Children First: The Future of Health Care Policy Begins with Medicare and SCHIP

| Fri Jan. 30, 2009 3:53 PM EST

When it comes to health care policy, the old and the young serve as the canaries in the coal mine, testing the political air for the rest of the population. If the new government isn't able to muster the guts--and the Congressional majorities--to improve access to health care for these vulnerable segments of the population, there isn't much hope for anyone else. On the other hand, if long-overdue changes to Medicare and the State Childrens Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) move forward swiftly, it could be a good omen for health care reform in general.

Some early signs give cause for cautious optimism: The new Congress has acted quickly on SCHIP, which gives states federal funds to help cover uninsured children who belong to relatively low-income families that nonetheless earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. Some 80 percent of Americans support legislation to expand funding and eligibility for SCHIP. In the past, such legislation has been twice passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress--and twice vetoed by George W. Bush.

Yesterday, the Senate succeeded in passing a bill increasing annual SCHIP funding by $32.8 billion, and expanding the program to cover 11 million children, rather than the current 7 million. The expansion will be paid for largely by a rise in the cigarette tax. The Senate earlier rejected two harsh amendments introduced by Republicans: one that would force some of the less impoverished families to contribute to plans costs "to stop the people moving from private plans … to a government-sponsored plan"; and one that would have limited states' ability to enroll documented immigrant children in the program. The Washington Post described the Senate debate as "rancorous"--but in the end, nine Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bill.

Similar legislation had already passed in the House on January 14, and a final conference bill could be signed by President Obama as early as next week. Perhaps the most promising news is that the new SCHIP legislation is considerably better--more generous and more inclusive--than the two previous versions vetoed by Bush. A number of Republicans objected to this fact, accusing Democrats of double-crossing them on their earlier deals (as if that weren't what happened after every shift in party power).

SCHIP legislation has always enjoyed some bipartisan support. The same is not true of reforms to the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit–-Bush's signature piece of health care legislation, which is in effect a massive handout of taxpayer dollars to the insurance industry and Big Pharma. So what happens with Part D is perhaps a more useful predictor of things to come.