2009 - %3, February

Generics in the Budget

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 11:20 PM PST
This seems like good news:

Makers of generic drugs hailed a proposal in President Barack Obama's budget to set up a faster pathway for generic versions of biologic drugs, the fastest-growing segment of the pharmaceutical industry.

The budget included other steps friendly to generics makers. The administration said it wants to end "evergreening," in which brand-name makers reformulate existing products and extend the life of their market exclusivity.

The proposals on generic drugs are part of a series of spending curbs that the president is proposing, all aimed at helping to reduce costs in the health care system overall and to pay for his effort to expand coverage to all Americans.

This is a small-bore initiative.  But put enough small-bore initiatives together, and eventually you can have something pretty big.

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Species Invasion: Coming June 2010

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 7:04 PM PST
We know that invasive species are now a threat to 20 percent of the endangered vertebrates of the world. Most are invading beyond their home worlds by hitchhiking on our rides: planes, trains, cars, ships, feet. Everything from bacteria to bats is doing it. I wrote in depth about the scary lionfish invasion of the Atlantic in the Jan-Feb MoJo. New research forecasts that June 2010 is likely to be the worst invasion month ever.

Why? Because that's when temperature, humidity, and rainfall are likely to converge at many distant airports. In other words, when it's hot and humid in Miami it's also likely to be hot and humid in Shanghai. Species hitching a ride at one airport will more easily survive in the other. Add to that climate synergy the increasing traffic from India and China and we're likely to have an invasive species bloom in June 2010. Including whatever diseases the invaders are carrying... So what can we do? For a start:

  • Ramp up inspection activities at airports during the 6/10 time frame. And all other time frames.

  • Redirect at least some of the war on drugs to defending against biological invasions. Seriously, can't we put sniffer dogs and their handlers to better use?

  • Feed us in the air. Agricultural pests are invading on the foodstuffs individual travelers carry because the airlines no longer feed us. (Sometimes saving money is unbelievably costly.)

  • Consider your next flight… you know, along with the CO2 footprint... factor in the your potential as the vector of a new invasion. Is the trip worth it?

One Cool Thing About Working for Hustler

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 6:20 PM PST

Okay, maybe I'm hyperaware of mandatory arbitration clauses because MoJo has consumer-advocate rock-star Stephanie Mencimer on staff and currently on our front page. But I couldn't help but exult a little over this sentence at the bottom of a Larry Flynt Publishing freelance contract (yes, I've done a little journalism for them. Smart, investigative vagina journalism): 

"Any dispute or claim arising out of the Letter Agreement shall be determined only by the courts in California, and therefore, you hereby agree to submit to the jurisdiction of the courts of California."

Court! How quaint! Seriously, mandatory arbitration clauses are now so standard that it's nearly impossible to buy a car, get a job, or even eat a cheeseburger without giving up your ability to sue companies that screw (!) you. But not at Hustler. Whatever my thoughts on some of Larry Flynt's politics, at least the pornographer puts his money where his litigious mouth is and lets contributors keep their right to take his whole sexy empire to court. Which is going to come in really handy when his art department photoshops some giant naked boobs onto my contributor's photo.

San Francisco Chronicle Still Desperate, Unions in Talks With Hearst

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 6:15 PM PST
Representatives from the San Francisco Chronicle's employees unions met with Hearst officials to discuss possible layoffs and wage cuts today, confirms Chronicle spokesman Michael Keith. The layoffs, as I blogged earlier, are meant to offset the $50 million loss the Chronicle suffered last year. Hearst, which owns the paper, has threatened to try to sell it in the case that costs cannot be cut significantly; or close it altogether. No word yet on whether the unions have reached a deal with Hearst. "Today's meeting was just the initial discussion," says Keith. "We're not really expecting anything to come from that."

Hearst hasn't laid out any specific timeline or number of positions to be cut, but one of the unions reports that as of today, at least 50 jobs will be axed. The union also said in a statement on its site that it's discussing removing some jobs from union protection and outsourcing certain positions, among other options. Keith expects the next move is for the two employees unions to meet and discuss options jointly. 

"It's really a sign of market failure to imagine a major city like San Francisco without a daily paper," says one Chronicle staffer. The staffer is anxious about the impending layoffs, or worse: if the Chronicle closes, 1,500 people will be jobless.

The Chron need only peer north for sorry company. Hearst also owns the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which it plans to close or produce exclusively online if a buyer cannot be found by the end of March. And even if staff cuts could make up the $50 million, Hearst would still be stuck without a revenue stream. Currently, it costs $10 to produce and deliver a $2 Sunday Chronicle: yes, that's right, ten dollars. Layoffs will barely alleviate that burden, and apparently the paper is hemorrhaging money, losing $1 million a week. It'd take a lot of Extra, Extra to pull out of that hole.

Spokesman Keith says not to expect any updates to the situation soon, but if any insiders with a scoop, e-mail me at jphillips at motherjones dot com, or catch me up in the comments. Some have theorized that Hearst's threat to close the Chronicle "within weeks" is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate the unions or accomplish other nefarious corporate ends. To which I can only say, nefarious? Hearst? Definitely plausible. Other theories?

Teh Google

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 4:33 PM PST
In his column today, Michael Gerson tells us that at a recent meeting of conservative activists, Bobby Jindal didn't talk much about personal history or social hot button issues:

Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Italics mine.  Brad DeLong snarks, "At the very least, a columnist for the Post should hide his ignorance rather than be proud of it."

But what Gerson is actually doing here is using the time honored rhetorical trope of feigned ignorance to suggest to his audience that Jindal must be some kind of rocket scientist.  This is something that I used to do occasionally too, but it's really not possible anymore and Gerson should know that.  Why?  Because the web makes research too easy.  If you Google "CMS" the very first hit is Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  It takes five seconds.  Outside of things like live panels, it's a very 20th century affectation to showily pretend not to know this kind of stuff anymore.

Mining Reform: A Golden Opportunity

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:58 PM PST

In the midst of America's financial crisis, one of the biggest government giveaways goes to an industry that least needs it: gold mining. Even as prices for gold hover near historic highs and mining exacts a deep environmental toll, the General Mining Law of 1872 allows $1 billion in hard rock minerals to be taken from federal lands each year royalty-free. All told, mining companies have been exempted from paying at least $100 billion in royalties, taxes, and fair land prices.

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing on updating the 137-year-old law, which was enacted during the Grant administration. The House is expected to pass sweeping royalty and environmental reforms, but the bill must also clear the Senate, where last year a similar effort stalled in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the gold mining industry’s most powerful ally.

Reid faces a delicate political dance. Typically a reliable ally to environmentalists, he’s also the son of a gold miner, father of children who maintain ties to the industry, and representative of a state that mines more gold than all but three nations. In a nod to his virtual veto power over mining reform, last year the House held a similar hearing in the town of Elko, ground zero for Nevada's mining industry. There, Reid expressed his support for "real and reasonable reform" before ultimately turning on the House’s reform bill as "not something Nevada can accept."

A spokesman for Jeff Bingaman, who oversees mining legislation as the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, sees this as the year that a reform bill finally passes. With the treasury bleeding dollars and the gold mines swimming in cash, Reid may be headed for the final showdown between two seemingly incompatible sides of his political identity. Whatever compromise he supports could make him an historic statesman, put him out of a job, or both. I explore how it all might shake out in the March/April issue’s feature, Gold Member.

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Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack Scores Big Post-Oscar Bump

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 2:39 PM PST
The ceremony was shrill and silly, and A.R. Rahman was forced to share his big musical moment with John Legend (who was himself replacing Peter Gabriel), but things worked out: the soundtrack to best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, as well as best song "Jai Ho," have both registered significant post-Oscar jumps in sales. The soundtrack, which includes both of Millionaire's nominated songs as well as M.I.A.'s already-pretty-popular "Paper Planes," is now the number one selling album on iTunes, outselling both The Jonas Brothers and heavy metal monsters Lamb of God. Nice. Perhaps more intriguingly, the ecstatic, driving "Jai Ho" is now a Top 5 sales hit, climbing to #5 on the iTunes singles chart today. The official Billboard charts have not yet caught up with this week's sales, but it will be intriguing to see how those look next week. Also, for some reason the music industry powers that be decided it would be a good idea if the Pussycat Dolls did a "remix" of "Jai Ho," which one hopes might engender interest in the original amongst otherwise clueless demographics, but one worries might, er, hasten the end of the world. After the jump, the song in its original form (accompanying the dance scene from the film) and the new, Pussycatted version.

Why Bobby Jindal Must Call Jay Leno ASAP

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 1:17 PM PST

There was only one phone call Bobby Jindal needed to make on Wednesday--and that was to Jay Leno.

The Republican Louisiana governor utterly botched the GOP response to President Obama's address to Congress. In the White House press briefing room on Wednesday, reporters were cruelly joking about Jindal's performance, noting he had gone quickly from a political rising star to a black hole. "He made Sarah Palin look good," one said. Another quipped, "No doubt this was a strategic attempt to lower expectations--and it succeeded wildly."

The reviews have been universally awful. Even on the right. David Brooks called Jindal's speech "insane." Rightwing blog Little Green Footballs huffed, "Bobby Jindal...seemed to be trying for the same 'inspirey hopey changey' theme as the Big O, but came up with almost no specifics about anything at all....[T]the most specific point in his speech was the slam against volcano monitoring. And that came across as ignorant to me, and pandering to the anti-science far righties." Fox News commentators put it down:

BRIT HUME: The speech read a lot better than it sounded. This was not Bobby Jindal’s greatest oratorical moment.

NINA EASTON: The delivery was not exactly terrific.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: Jindal didn’t have a chance. He follows Obama, who in making speeches, is in a league of his own. He’s in a Reagan-esque league.… [Jindal] tried the best he could.

What's an exorcist-loving, young Republican to do in response?

Jindal ought to steal a move from Bill Clinton and seek salvation on Leno's set. In 1988, Bill Clinton, then a little-known Arkansas governor, delivered the keynote address at the Democrats' presidential convention. It was a horribly boring speech. He droned on for what seemed like forever. And when he began his summation and said "in conclusion," the audience cheered. He immediately became a national punchline. But Clinton moved fast to stop the bleeding. He joked with reporters about his terrible performance, and he quickly booked himself a spot on Johnny Carson's show. (For you youngsters, Carson hosted The Tonight Show before Leno.) Sitting next to Johnny--after Carson gave him a very, very, very long introduction--Clinton engaged in self-ribbing and made good sport of his abysmal performance. Four years later, he was elected president of the United States.

Clinton was a survivor who turned a lousy moment into an entertaining bit. By doing so, he showed he was in touch with reality and could pivot accordingly. (Of course, some might say that Clinton was able to pivot too easily.)

Can Jindal pull as deft a move? At this stage, Leno is his best bet. And if he can get on the show before Saturday Night Live takes its shot, all the better for him and his now-less-than-brilliant political career.

How Food Policy Gets Made: Finland vs. the US

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 1:09 PM PST

Matt Yglesias has a post up contrasting how the creation of health policy differs in Finland and the United States. Here's his description of Finland's process, as it pertains to school lunches:

...in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter.

...what's crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

By way of contrast, here's an example of how food industry lobbyists hijack the system in the United States, courtesy of the very good American News Project:

The next issue of Mother Jones, which is either on newsstands near you or will be soon, is on how to fix food. Most of the content is not online yet, so if you want to read more you'll have to settle for this conversation we had with Michael Pollan, a longtime MoJo contributor who has more neat ideas on reforming food policy than just about anyone.

Core Principles

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 12:54 PM PST
AP reports on Barack Obama's plans for financial regulation:

In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday afternoon, the president offers no specific regulatory framework, but calls for "core principles." Among them are consumer protections, accountability for executives and a regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past.

Atrios says Obama is "making the right noises" here, but I'm not quite so sure.  Consumer protections are fine, but frankly, not really central to what caused the financial meltdown.  "Accountability" for executives is mush.  They're already accountable in most meaningful senses of the word.

That leaves a "regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past" — which is fine but could mean pretty much anything.  What's the core principle here?

I know everyone is probably tired of hearing me say this, but I wish Obama would talk more about a real core principle: regulating leverage more effectively, and doing it everywhere and for all types of securities.  This isn't easy, especially when you need to get practically the entire world on board, but more than any other single change it would force financial institutions to be more responsible; it would make future asset bubbles less destructive; and it would fundamentally put a stop to the casino atmosphere and outlandish paydays that have permeated Wall Street over the past decade.  If we really wanted to get ambitious, we might even try to set up a countercyclical regime that increased capital requirements in good times and lowered them during bad times.  But regardless of how the details turn out, if our new regs are driven by a core concern for regulating leverage, they'll do some good.  If not, it's likely to be a repeat of Sarbanes-Oxley: lots of good intentions, but not much bang for the buck.