2009 - %3, August

Democrats Want to Kill Your Grandma!

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 12:46 AM EDT

As you may be aware if you pay attention to other precincts of the blogosphere, Betsy McCaughey was on Fred Thompson’s radio show a couple of weeks ago warning listeners about a hidden outrage in the House healthcare bill:

McCaughey said "Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner."  She said those sessions would help the elderly learn how to "decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go in to hospice care ... all to do what's in society's best interest or in your family's best interest and cut your life short."

This is so ridiculously untrue that you almost have to admire the sheer brass of the thing, but in any case it's lit up a firestorm in right-wing circles.  Mickey Kaus has some advice:

Tip for Dems: If you don't want people to think that subsidized, voluntary end-of-of-life counseling sessions are the camel's nose of an attempt to cut costs by limiting end of life care, then don't put them in a bill the overarching, stated purpose of which is to cut health care costs! ... I mean, did that provision have to be in the bill? If it really was just an added "benefit" for patients that had nothing to do with cutting costs (which I don't believe for a minute), did it even belong in the bill? Isn't there some group of Congressional Democrats — let's call them "the leadership" — whose job it is to prevent their co-partisans from inserting into major legislation relatively minor provisions that will have the effect of sinking the whole package?

I get Mickey's point, but I wonder if he's asking the impossible.  As near as I can tell, movement conservatives are geniuses at plucking obscure provisions out of bills and twisting them with an abandon that would make Huey Long blush.  Maybe it's a dark art, but it's still an art — and conservatives are its Rembrandt.

Now, maybe Dems should have figured this out anyway and ditched the relevant wording before the bill got out of committee.  After all, if you're playing in the big leagues, you have to hit big league pitching.  Still, think about this: we're talking about someone who saw a routine provision about advance care directives and somehow realized she could turn it into "Democrats want to kill your grandma!"  And it worked!  What sane person could have seen that coming?  What's more, even if some bright Democratic staffer had seen it and presciently sent it to the deep freeze, does anyone doubt that someone who could sniff out such murderous possibilities in a funding provision for advance care planning would have any trouble finding something else to take its place?  You'd have to gut the entire bill before you could be sure it was sufficiently sanitized against satanic skills like that.

No, the only answer is to assume that this kind of chain email fodder is always going to crop up and be ready to fight back against it.  Which, so far, doesn't really seem to be happening.  That's the real problem.

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Online Happiness: Measure It, Get It

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 8:08 PM EDT

How happy are we? And how might we get happier?

First up: applied mathematicians Peter Dodds and Christopher Danforth of the U of Vermont Burlington are calculating how happy the Internet is by focusing on blog posts and song lyrics. They chose these two datasets because they're: 1) huge; and 2) more honest—or so they believe.

Dodds and Danforth analyzed sentences from 2.4 million blogs collected by wefeelfine.org, which searches blog worldwide for versions of the phrase "I feel," then records the whole sentence.

The researchers also downloaded more than a quarter million song lyrics from a searchable online database, then scanned for more than 1,000 emotionally charged words that a 1999 psychology study ranked on a scale from 1 (miserable) to 9 (ecstatic).

The good news: blogosphere happiness has increased some 4% since 2005, according to Dodds' and Danforth's upcoming paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The biggest recurring happy days are Christmas and Valentine's. The happiest day since 2005 was 4 November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president of the US.

The low points have been the 11 September anniversaries.

Second up: British psychologist Richard Wiseman is inviting the public to take part in an ambitious five-day online experiment (starting today) aimed at boosting happiness.

Participants rate their current mood before a random assignment to one of four groups—each of which watches a video describing one of four techniques commonly used to boost happiness. Particpants then follow the techniques and five days from now everyone reassesses their mood. The results will be announced 11 August.

Wiseman presents 10 techniques to help you get happier:

  • Meet up with a friend that you haven’t seen for a while
  • Watch a funny film or tv show
  • Exercise 30 minutes three times a week
  • Cut your tv viewing in half (but not the funny stuff?)
  • Buy experiences not goods: go to a concert, movie, unusual place, or strange restaurant.
  • Create novel challenges by starting a hobby, joining an organization, learning a skill
  • Go for a 20 minute walk in the sun
  • Spend 10 minutes listening to relaxing or uplifting music
  • Stroke a dog (cat?)
  • Stop watching and reading the news (even MoJo junkies?)

Mobile MoJo

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 6:13 PM EDT

As it happens, I myself own a dumb phone.  A very dumb phone.  But it's sufficient for my needs because, basically, I never use it anyway.

However, if you have a smart phone, you can now do something even smarter with it: read Mother Jones online.  You can read the magazine.  You can read our online web articles.  You can read my blog.  You can read our other blogs.  You can read everything.

Now, since I don't have a smart phone myself, I can't honestly tell you how well this works.  But give it a try and let me know.  It's time for me to replace my old phone anyway, so maybe this will be enough to get me to replace it with something smarter.  More details here.

Fighting Back

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 5:50 PM EDT

The latest schtick from right wing activists is an organized effort to disrupt town hall presentations from members of Congress who are in their home districts during the August recess.  According to Robert MacGuffie, who runs the website rightprinciples.com:

Tea partiers should "pack the hall... spread out" to make their numbers seem more significant, and to "rock-the-boat early in the Rep's presentation...to yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early.... to rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda...stand up and shout and sit right back down."

Lovely.  But Mark Kleiman has the same idea as me:

If I were a Member of Congress threatened by this nonsense, I wouldn't stop holding town meetings; I'd start out each meeting by welcoming my constituents and warning them that there's an organized group in the hall planning to disrupt the proceedings. Never pass up an opportunity to portray your opponents as extremists, especially when they are.

I might be careful about doing this in states with concealed carry laws, but otherwise it sounds like a pretty good idea.

Getting to Yes

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 5:20 PM EDT

I missed this a couple of days ago, but Robert Pear and David Herszenhorn write in the New York Times that for all the turbulence surrounding healthcare reform right now, there's actually a surprising amount of bipartisan consensus about certain parts of it:

Lawmakers of both parties agree on the need to rein in private insurance companies by banning underwriting practices that have prevented millions of Americans from obtaining affordable insurance. Insurers would, for example, have to accept all applicants and could not charge higher premiums because of a person’s medical history or current illness. All insurers would have to offer a minimum package of benefits, to be defined by the federal government, and nearly all Americans would be required to have insurance.

....Lawmakers also agree on the need to provide federal subsidies to help make insurance affordable for people with modest incomes. For poor people, Medicaid eligibility would be expanded.

The chaos on Capitol Hill, combined with bitter disagreements over how to pay for the legislation and the role of a public plan, has obscured the areas of potential consensus.  “There is wide agreement on the two elements of the legislation that the public cares about most: insurance market reforms and the expansion of coverage, with subsidies,” said Drew E. Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health policy.

In other words: community rating plus subsidies for low-income families.  That's nice to hear.  I'd like a lot more than that, of course, but if we manage to pass a bill that contains reasonably strong forms of both these things, it will be a huge step forward.

(Via Jonathan Zasloff.)

Chuck Norris Challenges Obama on Birth Certificate

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 4:24 PM EDT

Should have known it wouldn't be long before Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicked his way into the birther controversy. On the heels of World Net Daily's "exclusive" today, the action hero and conservative wingnut has penned an open letter to President Obama, who turns 48 tomorrow, calling on him to release additional evidence that he is indeed an American citizen. Nevermind that a "Certification of Live Birth" (a/k/a the document you or I would use to obtain a license or passport) was released by Obama's campaign, that officials in Hawaii have repeatedly confirmed that he was born there, that Obama's 1961 birth announcement has been unearthed in Hawaii newspapers, that organizations including FactCheck.org have investigated claims that Obama is not a natural-born citizen and determined they're BS—Norris would still like Obama to "request, release and give permission to make public" his original birth certificate. Norris says he doesn't buy into the Obama's-not-a-citizen hoopla per se, but for the good of the nation, if nothing else, he believes the administration should put this whole nasty business to rest once and for all.

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Lieberman Indictment: Good for Peace?

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 4:09 PM EDT

Over the weekend, Israeli police suggested that the state indict its own right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice.

Lieberman and his associates are suspected of establishing several companies, some of them shell companies, in order to launder millions of shekels and funnel them into his own pockets. Police have investigated whether Lieberman continued running these alleged operations even after becoming a public official.

In addition, police believe Lieberman and his associates tried to obstruct the police investigation in at least three separate instances, by changing the names of companies he allegedly established in Cyprus after he suspected the police had identified them.

Lieberman has denied wrongdoing, saying that the allegations are his opponents' attempt to smear his name and oust him from the government. "For 13 years the police have conducted a campaign of persecution against me," he said. "As much as my political strength and the strength of [my party] Yisrael Beitenu rise, the campaign of persecution also intensifies."

Negative Interest Rates

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 3:24 PM EDT

Tyler Cowen writes today about the monetary views of Scott Sumner:

The Fed has already taken some unconventional monetary measures to stimulate the economy, but they haven’t been entirely effective. Professor Sumner says the central bank needs to take a different approach: it should make a credible commitment to spurring and maintaining a higher level of inflation, promising to use newly created money to buy many kinds of financial assets if necessary. And it should even pay negative interest on bank reserves, as the Swedish central bank has started to do. In essence, negative interest rates are a penalty placed on banks that sit on their money instead of lending it.

Much to the chagrin of Professor Sumner, the Fed has been practicing the opposite policy recently, by paying positive interest on bank reserves — essentially, inducing banks to hoard money.

Of all the things the Fed has done to fight the recent financial meltdown, this is the one I've never quite understood: paying interest on bank reserves.  As a general policy it might be a good idea (Steve Randy Waldman wrote a decent primer about it here), but as Sumner points out, in the middle of a financial crisis it gives banks an incentive to hoard money at the Fed instead of loaning it out.  That's the opposite of what we want.

On the other hand, minimum bank reserves are still mandatory in the U.S., so I guess I also don't understand the point of negative interest.  Banks are required to keep those reserves at the Fed, so they couldn't withdraw them even if they wanted to.  Essentially, a negative interest rate would just be a tax on banks.

So, as usual, I'm confused.  This doesn't really seem to make sense either way.

MoJo Mix: 3 August 2009

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

I can't decide whether the ongoing Birther resurgance is a) the usual wingnuts doing their usual wingnut thing, or b) a brilliant GOP tactical ploy to divert attention from health care reform. You? While you mull it over, 3 questions for your Monday mix:

1) Will health care reform actually happen?

2) Carbon footprint, sure. But what's your water footprint?

3) Why is HBO's 40-year-old co-creator of Hung claiming there are no talented and attractive actresses over 35?

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

MoJo Mix: 3 August 2009

| Mon Aug. 3, 2009 2:02 PM EDT

I can't decide whether the ongoing Birther resurgance is a) the usual wingnuts doing their usual wingnut thing, or b) a brilliant GOP tactical ploy to divert attention from health care reform. You? While you mull it over, 3 more questions for your Monday mix:

1) Will health care reform actually happen?

2) Carbon footprint, sure. But what's your water footprint?

3) Why is HBO's 40-year-old co-creator of Hung claiming there are no talented and attractive actresses over 35?

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.