2009 - %3, August

Need To Read: August 31, 2009

Mon Aug. 31, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Lots of must-reads today:

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 are my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

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Music Monday: Dirtbombs, Dengue, TV on the Radio Top Outside Lands

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 3:30 AM PDT

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, spanning Friday through Sunday here in idyllic Golden Gate Park, had something of a split personality disorder. The festival’s two main stages, as this map shows, occupy opposite ends of the festival’s vigilantly guarded fenced-off area—and as far as Friday and Saturday’s shows went, the contrast in each stage’s fare couldn’t be more stark.

On Friday, rockers of various stripes held court at the main stage at the Polo Field, from Built to Spill and Silversun Pickups to Incubus and headliners Pearl Jam. Several singers at the main stage, however, were snake-bit that first day, it seemed—both Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sounded hoarse, and both limped through their sets and called on the crowd for help more times than I could count. But while Incubus was hardly spectacular (like their more recent albums), Pearl Jam tore through hit after hit, especially in the set’s second half, when Vedder seemed to loosen up a bit and the crowd chimed in plenty.

A Weekend of Rebellious Rock 'n' Roll Brought to You by...

| Sun Aug. 30, 2009 11:18 PM PDT

The girl nervously watched as the tattoo formed on her hand, a small, colorful flower in the fleshy crook between her thumb and forefinger. Up close, though, the flower’s shape came into focus: It was actually a stem and bulb formed by the silhouettes of tiny cars. Mid-size sedans, actually. That’s because this particular tent, peddling not just tattoos but bandanas and gift bags, was Toyota's “Prius Spot” tent, one of several scattered around this past weekend's Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. A tricked-out version of the popular hybrid sat parked inside.

I asked the flower girl’s boyfriend why anyone would want a flower made of sedans or an automaker's name inked on their hand. He shrugged. "It’s only temporary, right?"

Others stepped up for tattoos of their own, choosing between the Camry-inspired flower or a tangle of barbs encircling Toyota’s logo with the name “TOYOTA” emblazoned underneath. Indeed, a winged skull with the Toyota logo was among the most popular tattoos of the day, one of the inkers told me.

Needless to say, the ploy took branding to a whole new level.

Like that girl’s hand, just about every other inch of this weekend’s Outside Lands festival was “Presented by” or “Courtesy of” or sponsored in some capacity by a corporation or company. It was brand overload all weekend (at least for me), the staggering number of companies' names plastered throughout the festival's grounds staggering.

Metrics for Afghanistan

| Sun Aug. 30, 2009 10:10 PM PDT

From the LA Times:

The Obama administration is racing to demonstrate visible headway in the faltering war in Afghanistan, convinced it has only until next summer to slow a hemorrhage in U.S. support and win more time for the military and diplomatic strategy it hopes can rescue the 8-year-old effort.

...."We need a fundamental new approach," said one officer, a senior advisor to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly appointed top commander in Afghanistan....Officers in Afghanistan consider much of the effort of the last eight years wasted, with too few troops deployed, many in the wrong regions and given the wrong orders.

And how are we going to know if this fundamental new approach is working? Metrics!

Both the House and Senate versions of the pending 2010 defense spending bill include metrics and reporting requirements for the administration. Obama's strategy is "still a work in progress," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who co-sponsored an amendment in the legislation setting conditions on aid to Pakistan.

In the absence of strict guidelines from the administration, Menendez said in an interview, "we are definitely moving to a set of metrics that can give us benchmarks as to how we are proceeding" and whether Obama's strategy "is pursuing our national security interests."

The White House hopes to preempt Congress with its own metrics. The document currently being fine-tuned, called the Strategic Implementation Plan, will include separate "indicators" of progress under nine broad "objectives" to be measured quarterly, according to an administration official involved in the process. Some of the about 50 indicators will apply to U.S. performance, but most will measure Afghan and Pakistani efforts.

I've got nothing against metrics, but 50 sounds like about 45 too many.  Internally, they can have a thousand metrics if they need them — and they probably do — but for public consumption four or five key things are enough to tell us whether things are turning around.  I'd much rather have that than a long laundry list that leaves the military with enough scope to conclude just about anything it feels like concluding.

In any case, September 24 is when we get to hear about our new Afghanistan strategy.  In Iraq, we took advantage of a few indigenous movements and then dumped a ton of soldiers into Baghdad, working on the assumption that Baghdad was so crucial that if it could be stabilized the rest of the country would follow.  In Afghanistan, we don't really have anything local to take advantage of, and Kabul doesn't have anywhere near the importance that Baghdad does in Iraq (and besides, it's practically the only place in Afghanistan that isn't a problem).  So our experience in Iraq really won't help us much — which means this new strategy is pretty much starting from scratch.  I can't wait to see it.

POSTSCRIPT: Plus, as Matt says, I'd like to know what the plan is if the metrics look bad a year from now.  Will we withdraw?  Create new metrics?  Fire the old commanders and put new ones in again?  Or what?

The Recession Doldrums

| Sun Aug. 30, 2009 9:08 PM PDT

The Wall Street Journal asks a question today:

Can Rally Run Without Revenue?
Investors Wonder Whether Profits Based on Cost Cutting Can Long Endure

No, they can't.  Beyond the very shortest of short terms, you need rising revenue to generate rising earnings, and for that you need higher consumer spending.

But there's no sign of that.  This isn't an ordinary inventory cycle recession, which goes away when inventories tighten back up, or a Fed-induced inflation-fighting recession, which goes away when the Fed eases up on interest rates.  It's a massive deleveraging recession, and it won't go away until consumers and businesses pay down their crushing debt loads and start spending money again.

But how?  There are only a few ways for consumers to spend more money, and none of them are anywhere on the horizon.  Wages aren't going up, employment isn't going up, the glory days of credit card debt and home equity loans are over, and no one is drawing down their savings to buy bedroom sets these days.  Just the opposite, in fact.

So with consumers actively reducing their consumption in order to pay off debt, what's going to keep this recovery going?  A few hundred billion dollars in stimulus money?  Not likely.  Unfortunately, with no second stimulus likely to get serious consideration, we're stuck in the doldrums until deleveraging has run its course.  That's probably going to take another couple of years.

The Lesson of the Town Halls

| Sun Aug. 30, 2009 11:22 AM PDT

Is there any reason for optimism on healthcare reform?  In a weird sort of way there is.

Think about this: It turns out that heathcare reform is so fundamentally popular that the only way Republicans have been able to have any impact at all on the debate is via a campaign of demagoguery so egregious and brazen that Huey Long himself probably would have hesitated a moment or two before jumping in.  For the first six months of the year nothing else had made a dent, so finally they had to resort to a full month of silly season frenzy about death panels and secret White House enemies lists and "healthcare racism" and benefits for illegal immigrants.  The only thing missing was sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.

It's been a helluva show.  But here's the weird fact: despite all this, public support for healthcare reform has declined only modestly.  In fact, less than you'd expect even without the August freak show we've just gone through.  Generally speaking, people still approve of Obama, still approve of his healthcare plan, still prefer Democrats to Republicans on the issue, and still support giving people the choice of being covered by either a public or a private plan. Fox News and FreedomWorks have managed to spin their audiences into a hysterical lather about fascism and socialism and pulling the plug on grandma, but in the end the shrieking crowds who showed up at the townhalls were tiny in number.

So that's the optimistic view: the Fox/FreedomWorks crowd has created some great political theater, but underneath it all not a lot has changed.  If Democrats can just take a deep breath after the trauma of being yelled at all summer, they'll realize that the loons at their townhalls represented about one percent of their constituency; that the public still wants reform and will reward success; that the plans currently on the table are already pretty modest affairs; and then they'll stick together as a caucus and vote for them.  And that will be that.

Unfortunately, that's also the reason for pessimism: can Democrats still think straight about all this?  When Chuck Grassley announces dolefully that maybe healthcare needs to be rethought now that the people have spoken, he says it like he really means it.  And even some Dems fall for it.  So success depends on the Democratic caucus seeing through the "heartland uprising" charade and showing some backbone.  The odds might not be so great on that.

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Back to Basics

| Sat Aug. 29, 2009 8:35 AM PDT

Let's recap: the United States spends about twice as much on healthcare as any other developed nation in the world and in return receives just about the worst care.  Can someone remind me again why there's even a debate about whether we should put up with this?

Oil Likely to Spew Off Australia for Weeks

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 6:03 PM PDT

The Thai energy company PTTEP cannot stop a major oil leak spewing from its wellhead in the Timor Sea off the northwest Australian coast—despite an emergency response lasting a week and despite dropping nearly 5,000 gallons of chemical dispersant on the slick, reports the The Sydney Morning Herald.

 

The West Atlas drilling unit is owned by Norway's SeaDrill Ltd but operated by PTTEP Australasia. Clean-up managers are the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), reports WA Today.

 

BTW, studies in seabirds show that dispersants can be as lethal as oil to affected wildlife.

 

The spill in the West Atlas drilling unit began August 21st and now stretches across at least 110 miles of ocean, though PTTEP admits to only 8 miles. Reuters reports an air exclusion zone has been set up and ships have been advised to stay more than 20 nautical miles away from the rig, which is too dangerous to board.

 

Capping the leak is expected to take weeks. PTTEP is towing a new rig from Singapore to drill a relief well nearby, hoping to stem the flow. The new rig left Singapore on Thursday and is expected to arrive after about 16 days, with an additional four weeks needed to drill the second well. Outcome of the drilling, obviously, unknown.

 

The Australian company Woodside Petroleum, headquartered in Perth, has offered the use of a closer drill rig and an emergency  team to speed the response. So far no answer from PTTEP.

 

There's a lot at risk out there in a region considered an oceanic superhighway linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Affected wildlife, according to WWF Australia, includes flatback sea turtles, an Australian species of special concern, plus other sea turtles, sea snakes, seabirds, pygmy blue whales, and many other cetaceans.

 

Depending on winds, the slick could be pushed to atolls like Scott and Ashmore Reef, areas of global significance for their unique wildlife.

 

WWF Australia is calling for changes to preparations for such disasters, pointing out it took three days for the first dispersant to be sprayed, although the region is considered a critical area for biodiversity.

 

Cost of the NYT Magazine NOLA Story Broken Down

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 3:20 PM PDT

In the issue that hits doorsteps this Sunday, the New York Times Magazine has published a two-year investigation by Dr. Sheri Fink, a staff reporter with the nonprofit investigative journalism shop ProPublica, into the claims that Dr. Anna Pou and other medical personnel at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, euthanized patients after the hospital was flooded, supplies ran out, and the staff struggled to treat scores of patients who were not evacuated.

The piece is great, and will be (damn them) hard to beat when the American Society of Magazine Editors hands out its annual award for public interest journalism. (And then there's that little thing called a Pulitzer.) Not only because it reveals facts that many other news stories as well as a grand jury investigation failed to unearth, but also because it somehow allows you to feel both sympathy for and horror at the doctors’ actions. It also reveals how various philosophies of triage conflict with each other, and how little training doctors have with any of them. Read it and take a look at all the nifty online extras, too.

So: what does a piece like this cost? In one of those “get to know a Times staffer” Q&As, Gerry Marzorati, the NYTM’s editor said that he and the editors of ProPublica did a back of the napkin calculation. Upshot: $400,000.

Now, that sounds like a lot. It is a lot. Gerry has said before that most NYTM cover stories average out at @ $40K, which is the average per-issue edit buy budget for this magazine. But reading the piece, the price tag didn’t surprise me. And if it surprises you, it’s because most people don’t realize how expensive and laborious investigative journalism can be. So to help folks understand, I asked Gerry to break down the $400,000. He obliged, emailing:

Ok, roughly:
2 years of reporting by a staff writer, full-time: 200k
Editing for that period by 2 ProPublica editors: 30k
Lawyering hours at ProPublica: 20K
Editing hours at the Times magazine over past year (from me to copy editors, 5 editors in all involved): 40k
Times fact-checking: 10k
Photography fees plus expenses: 40k
Times lawyering fees: 20k
Web and Web graphic costs at both the Times and ProPublica: 10k
Cost of adding 6 pages to the feature well to accommodate story: 24k

Total: 394k

Now Sheri got a grant during one of those years from the Kaiser Foundation, meaning some smallish portion of the overall cost was not carried by the NYT or ProPublica. And Sheri did report some other stories for PP during this time. But balance against that what’s not included in this rough calculation: proportional overhead for both organizations including rent, equipment, travel costs, libel insurance (there’s a reason a story like this gets so much attention from lawyers), distribution, servers, etc.

My point? This story—which could result in criminal prosecutions and should result in a national conversation among doctors and hospitals around their triage and emergency procedures—is the kind of work that is in peril now that the financial underpinnings (i.e. advertising) for journalism have collapsed. Bloggers and commenters and citizen journalists can’t take on a project like this. They can add to it, amplify it, criticize it, and generally run with it, but a project like this requires consistent, institutional teams of reporters and editors and factcheckers and lawyers and web dudes. In our most recent editors' note, Monika and I explain what’s going on to the media and the threat that the collapse of institutional reporting poses to a healthy democracy, concluding:

What it's going to take [to turn things around] is for many more Americans to decide that quality reporting—be it on local school boards or Iraq or climate negotiations—is as vital to their lives as box scores and celebrity spats. As media theorist Clay Shirky recently wrote, "Journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it's about the creation of shared awareness," and ultimately the ability to act on that awareness. Because make no mistake: This is a zero-sum equation. Less journalism = less accountability. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism, and propaganda thrive when reporting dies. That's not a price we're prepared to pay.

Read the whole thing here.

Update: Zach Seward of Niemam Jounalism Lab (@NiemanLab and one of my favorite sources on media news out there), also dug into the numbers on Friday—a post I surely would have seen and linked to had we not had a server implosion. Read Zach's post, he poses some interesting questions about measuring cost-benefit analysis, when costs are shared.

Clara Jeffery is Co-Editor of Mother Jones. You can follow more of her stories here and follow her on Twitter here.

Man's Video Plea for Public Option

| Fri Aug. 28, 2009 12:05 PM PDT

Dittoheads and Fox News watchers are understandably wary of any public healthcare option, given the misinformation shoved down their throats on a daily basis. (President Obama tries to dispel some of the myths here.) Part of people's fear, as explained by The New Yorker's James Surowiecki in the latest issue, can be explained by our innate tendency to assign an irrationally high value to something already in our possession—like our often crappy and expensive health insurance plans. But people really need to reflect on this stuff and not let fear and misinformation win out. Consider: What if you have a health problem that's covered through your employer, but you want to switch jobs? Will your new employer's insurance plan accept you? What if you're a freelance or contract worker? Or part-time? Or full-time without bennies? Or you got laid off? That's a lot of what-ifs, especially in the current economy. The bottom line, for anyone with a preexisting condition who isn't insured, is that you're pretty well screwed. Today, Boingboing.net, where you'll always learn something interesting, featured the personal Youtube video below. I think this guy sums up the whole issue pretty articulately—even if the majority of those (nearly) 50 million uninsured don't yet have a preexisting condition. Well, at least that they know of.