2009 - %3, August

Phone Books

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 4:09 PM EDT

Claire Thompson asks:

When was the last time you looked up something in the phone book? What did you do the last time you got a free phone book dropped off on your doorstep—did you recycle it? If you’re like most people these days, your answers to those questions are probably “I don’t remember” and “No.”

Well, in my case the answer is "last year" and "yes" — the latter because we all have recycling bins in my neighborhood, so pretty much everything gets recycled with no effort on my part.

But I certainly don't use phone books much.  In fact, even that time last year wasn't for my own benefit.  It was for my Korean neighbor, who knocked on our door late one night and told us he'd locked himself out of his house and could he please use our phonebook to find a locksmith?  So I called a few locksmiths for him.  (And, along the way, learned that most "24-hour locksmiths" are anything but.)

The really mysterious part of all this, though, is that despite the fact that phone books seem like they ought to be a dying breed, there are more of them than ever.  I just looked, and we have not one, not two, not three, but four different yellow pages directories.  One from Verizon, one from Yellowbook, and two from AT&T (they come in two different sizes for some reason).  They're all crammed with ads, which must mean people are using them, but I do sort of wonder who that is sometimes.  I use the web almost exclusively for this kind of thing these days, and I imagine that most people in my upscale neighborhood do too.  So why all the phone books?

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The Destroyers to the Rescue?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:36 PM EDT

On the back of today's Mother Jones investigation into the government's $75 billion, largely taxpayer-funded foreclosure relief program—a program shaping up to be a massive bust yet doling out millions and even billions to some questionable mortgage servicers—the Center for Public Integrity has released its own analysis of the program, the Home Affordable Modification Program. CPI found that of the top 25 HAMP servicers, at least 21 "were heavily involved in the subprime lending industry." Of the tens of billions allocated to HAMP, much "is going directly to the same financial institutions that helped create the subprime mortgage mess in the first place," says CIP executive director Bill Buzenberg. The fox, in other words, is guarding the heavily mortgaged hen house.

By all measurements, HAMP has been a bust. As I write in a story published today on MotherJones.com:

Industry experts are now questioning how many of the program’s estimated 235,000 modifications will actually benefit homeowners in the long term, and say that homeowners clamoring to participate in HAMP have created an industrywide logjam for mortgage servicers, resulting in substantial delays and backed-up customer service support. ...

The Treasury’s first servicer performance report (PDF), covering March to July 2009, found that servicers had offered modifications to just 15 percent of eligible delinquent homeowners, and initiated them for just 9 percent of that group...  Lawmakers in Washington, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful House financial services committee, have begun to voice doubts over whether HAMP servicers are doing enough to help homeowners. Now Frank and Durbin are revisiting the idea of allowing bankruptcy court judges to modify mortgage terms, an option called “cramdown” that the Senate rejected earlier this year.

Orrin Hatch Sings About Ted Kennedy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:10 PM EDT

Posted without comment:

Kennedy and Health Care, Then and Now

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

One of the great and bitter lessons of Senator Edward M. Kennedy's political career is also the most timely for House Democrats: The need to seize the political moment on health care reform.

Republicans and Democrats have never been as close to fixing health care as they were in 1973, when the Nixon administration was engulfed in the Watergate scandal and eager to change the subject. Knowing that Ted Kennedy would soon introduce a politically potent plan for nationalized health care, Nixon charged Caspar Weinberger, his Health Education and Welfare secretary, with crafting a bill that would "regain the initiative in the health arena." What Weinberger came up with looks positively Marxist compared to the way Republicans are slandering Obamacare: The plan, unveiled in Nixon's State of the Union address, would have required employers to provide health insurance and offered federally-financed coverage to many low-income Americans.

Though that sounds pretty good in the context of Washington's diminished expectations these days, Kennedy publicly opposed it at the time as a potential windfall for private insurance interests. A few months later, he announced his own plan, a single-payer system that would nonetheless preserve a role for private insurers as fiscal intermediaries and providers of supplementary benefits. Presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, believes Kennedy could have negotiated an historic compromise with Weinberger, but gave in to pressure from the labor unions to wait for a better deal under a new administration. (Kennedy later gained a reputation for pragmatism in negotiating bills like No Child Left Behind). "Kennedy said that was his biggest regret," Felzenberg told me today, "because he had a Republican president willing to dance with him."

The death of that era, embodied by Kennedy's passing today, is truly sobering. Kennedy and his labor allies could hardly be blamed for thinking that the tide of progressivism was still on the rise, or that the potential for honest debate was a given. Who could foresee that the GOP, far from chastened by Watergate, would become ever more beholden to Nixon's polarizing Southern Strategy? Or that American pragmatism would give way to the politics of fear, lies, and ideology that we've seen in the recent town halls?

Ultimately, Obama and progressives in Congress will sign on to some sort of health bill; the stakes are too high for them to take a pass. The question is under what terms they'll be able to shore up the effort in years to come. With the political pendulum on an uncertain arc, what cause now for Kennedy's famous optimism?

Succession Politics and Health Care Reform

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

In Nick's post about Ted Kennedy's torch passing to Obama, he wrote that the late senator's seat would be empty for nearly six months while a special election is organized "unless Massachusetts Dems change the law." Reports out of the state capital suggest that may happen when the Massachusetts legislature returns to session.

Up until 2004, the state did not require special elections to fill mid-term Senate vacancies. John Kerry's campaign for the presidency prompted Massachusetts Democrats, who feared that then-Governor Mitt Romney would appoint a Republican if Sen. Kerry prevailed, to require elections be held no sooner than 145 and no later than 160 days after a Senate seat is vacated. As Nick noted, one missing vote from the reliably Democratic state of Massachusetts could effectively endanger the passage of health care reform in the filibuster-fearing Senate.

On July 2nd, aware of this impediment to his succession at such a critical time, Kennedy wrote Massachusetts state lawmakers asking them to replace him quickly on his death. The New York Times observed that, "Though he did not cite any issues specifically, his note was viewed as an acknowledgment that his absence would leave uncertain… the essence and fate of health care reform, his most cherished legislative goal."

It is increasingly looking like Massachusetts' lawmakers may honor the late senator's dying plea. Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported that state Senate President Therese Murray, "who had privately expressed quite vehement opposition" to Kennedy's request, may have changed her mind. Today, Governor Deval Patrick announced his support for Kennedy's plan, citing "the momentous change legislation that is pending in the Congress today."

No one will know for certain how the state legislature will address the succession issue until they return from recess after Labor Day, but this is certainly one ray of light for advocates of health care reform on an otherwise dark day.

The Placebo Effect

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 12:50 PM EDT

In Wired, Steve Silberman writes about the well-known placebo effect: sometimes a sugar pill all by itself can help cure a disease or reduce its symptoms.  That's why it's not enough for drugs in clinical trials to work.  They have to work better than a placebo.

The placebo effect is mysterious enough on its own.  But there's more.  It turns out that placebos work better in some countries than other others.  It also turns out that ratings by trial observers vary significantly from one testing site to another.  But what's most mysterious is that the placebo effect actually seems to be getting stronger over time. Not only are new drugs having a harder and harder time beating out placebos, but older drugs that have been retested are having problems too:

In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late '90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, the FDA might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 1980s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time.

It's not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It's as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.

....But why would the placebo effect seem to be getting stronger worldwide? Part of the answer may be found in the drug industry's own success in marketing its products.  Potential trial volunteers in the US have been deluged with ads for prescription medications since 1997, when the FDA amended its policy on direct-to-consumer advertising. The secret of running an effective campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi's Jim Joseph told a trade journal last year, is associating a particular brand-name medication with other aspects of life that promote peace of mind: "Is it time with your children? Is it a good book curled up on the couch? Is it your favorite television show? Is it a little purple pill that helps you get rid of acid reflux?" By evoking such uplifting associations, researchers say, the ads set up the kind of expectations that induce a formidable placebo response.

Unfortunately, that's about it.  The mystery of the increased response to placebos remains a mystery.  No one really knows why it's happening.  But it's all pretty fascinating anyway, and the whole piece is well worth a read.

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Grassley's Problem

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 11:20 AM EDT

Chuck Grassly is in no danger of not being reelected.  So why is he being so bad-tempered about healthcare reform?  Ezra Klein says it's because he's under tremendous pressure from his fellow Republicans, who have the power to punish him if he supports a Democratic healthcare bill:

This is the final year that Grassley is eligible to serve as ranking member — the most powerful minority member, and, if Republicans retake the Senate, the chairman — of the Senate Finance Committee. His hope is to move over as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, or failing that, the Budget Committee. But for that, he needs the support of his fellow Republicans. And if he undercuts them on health-care reform, they will yank that support. It's much the same play they ran against Arlen Specter a couple of years back, threatening to deny him his chairmanship of — again — the Judiciary Committee. It worked then, and there's no reason to think it won't work now.

This kind of discipline is normal in a parliamentary system where everyone on both sides is expected to support the party line.  But that discipline is the flip side of a system in which the majority party has the power to turn its campaign platform into law using only its own votes.

You really can't have one without the other.  If you have an intensely whip-based system, in which the opposition party is expected to oppose unanimously, then the majority party has to have to power to govern using only its own majority.  Conversely, if you have a system in which legislation only passes if party members cross lines, then discipline necessarily needs to be weak.

Not to be tedious about this, but this is yet another example of how Congress has become schizophrenic in the age of the routine filibuster.  We either need a system in which the majority rules, or we need a system in which party members cross lines to form temporary alliances.  Right now we have neither.

UPDATE: Via email from reader Thomas F.:

AAAARRRRGGGG!!!!

Grassley does not want health care reform. Grassley does not want health care reform. Grassley does not want health care reform.

As a result, he does not have a problem. He will string this along in the service of his very very very conservative ideology and in service of the Republican party. But he will not support or vote for it in the end, and he will participate in the Gang of Six only as a way to slow legislative progress as a tool to derail the whole thing.

This might go a wee bit too far, but point taken.  I was using Ezra's post as an excuse to blather about the filibuster, but I probably shouldn't have let his implicit Grassley appraisal stand without comment.

Kennedy Funeral: "Wellstone Memorial on Steroids"?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 10:56 AM EDT

There's been a lot of speculation that the death of Teddy Kennedy will somehow make passing health care reform easier by pulling at Republican senators' heartstrings. This is wishful thinking, and it's not going to happen.

The crucial example in this case is the death of progressive giant Paul Wellstone just before the 2002 election. Wellstone's memorial service was a sort of rally, a tribute to the life he led and the causes he so passionately supported. It was liberal and political. It was, presumably, as he would have wanted. But Republicans slammed the memorial, criticizing its "politicization." (One of the speakers who "politicized" the event was Wellstone's son, Mark.)

Conservatives are already starting to warn that Kennedy's funeral will be a "Wellstone memorial on steroids," as Instapundit wrote. Al Franken, who now holds Wellstone's senate seat, wrote a chapter in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them about the memorial. In a piece about similar dynamics surrounding Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006, Franken explained:

The chapter was mainly about how cynically Republicans used the memorial politically as they complained that the Democrats had used it politically. And how the mainstream media, many of whom had neither attended the memorial nor seen it on TV, bought into the Republican spin.

Mainly, there was a lot of lying. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the audience was "planted," when, in fact, Twin Cities' radio and TV had to tell people to stay away because Williams Arena was jammed to capacity three hours before the Memorial was scheduled to begin. Thousands were crowded into an overflow gym to watch on a screen and thousands watched outside on a cold, late October night.

A pained Limbaugh asked his audience the day after the memorial: "Where was the grief? Where were the tears? Where was the memorial service? There wasn't any of this!"

This was a lie. I was there. Along with everyone else, I cried, I laughed, I cheered. It was, to my mind, a beautiful four-hour memorial.

[...]

It was the Republicans that tried to cheapen Paul Wellstone's life by dishonoring his death. It was the right-wing media, not the friends and family who spoke at the memorial or the people who came to it, that seized an opportunity to use a tragedy for political gain.

Now Ted Kennedy isn't even buried and you can see the same narrative reemerging. I wrote below that Kennedy's funeral will be an important moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation. It's true. Democrats, especially the president, are going to face a choice on that day. Will they confine their eulogies and their speeches to talking about Teddy's life? Or will they talk about what Teddy lived for: Democratic politics, liberal policies, and making people's lives better. If it's the latter, they better be ready. Because if President Obama goes out and says the obvious: that the best way to honor Ted Kennedy's life is to complete his quest for health care reform, you'll hear the inevitable holier-than-thou criticism from the right: "How dare you politicize something like this!" 

When it's politically convenient, the Norm Colemans and Rush Limbaughs of the world like to pretend they are the protectors of the legacies of the Ted Kennedys and Paul Wellstones and Coretta Scott Kings of the world. But Norm Coleman was no Paul Wellstone, and the people who will be telling you to "be respectful" and ignore Ted Kennedy's most closely-held beliefs and values are sure as heck no Ted Kennedys. Don't believe it for a minute. 

The Unsung (And Singing) Ted Kennedy

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 10:46 AM EDT

Back in March, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s family and friends organized a private 77th birthday gala for him, appropriately held at the Kennedy Center in DC. It was a star-studded affair. Bill Cosby was master of ceremonies, and all of Kennedy's favorite Irish tenors and Broadway crooners showed up to serenade him. (Apparently, Kennedy was such a huge fan of show tunes and Irish music that his wife gave him singing lessons a few years back so he could better belt out Wild Irish Rose, a video of which was presented during the event.) President Obama made a surprise appearance as the grand finale.

I was there as part of the community gospel choir doing some back up numbers and performing the big rousing patriotic tribute to Kennedy at the end. The man who organized the choir and composed the tribute to Kennedy was the incredibly talented young African-American minister Rev. Nolan Williams, the music minister of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in DC. Kennedy and his wife Vicki had befriended Williams a few years ago after Kennedy asked Williams to accompany him on his regular visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to help bolster the spirits of the wounded troops.

Williams told us during one choir practice that he and Kennedy had been making these visits for several years, which was one reason Kennedy’s family had tapped Williams to choreograph the big gospel production at Kennedy's birthday party. What I found touching about the story was that Williams said Kennedy's visits to Walter Reed were never publicized. The country's most famous senator regularly went to the run-down military hospital without the cameras to show his support for the people who had fought in a war he never supported. It was an authentic expression of patriotism and seemed to say a lot about who Kennedy was and why he will be so so sorely missed in American political life.

Durable Goods

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 10:33 AM EDT

This is a little bit confusing.  Durable goods orders were up in July, but it turns out it was mostly because Boeing had a good month:

As encouraging as the report appeared at first glance, it also suggested businesses were still cutting back. Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft, a barometer of business investment, fell 0.3 percent in July after rising 3.6 percent in June. New orders for computers and related products fell 2.8 percent after rising 0.5 percent in June.

The report today is likely to bolster the view, shared by a growing number of economists, that the recession is winding down or has already ended. It was further proof the manufacturing sector has begun to stabilize as businesses start to restock. Businesses had been slashing inventories for months as they tried to catch up with falling demand.

Aside from commercial jets, orders for durable goods fell 0.3% after rising in June, which "suggested businesses were still cutting back."  But three sentences later this bolsters the view that the recession is winding down.  What am I missing?