2009 - %3, September

Filmmaker, Photojournalist Killed in El Salvador

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:42 PM EDT

Christian Poveda, a prominent French filmmaker and photojournalist who spent years chronicling the lives of El Salvadorian gang members, has been found dead—possibly the victim of his subjects.

Poveda first came to El Salvador in the 1980's, to photograph the country's civil war for Time. He returned in the 1990's to document its gritty gang life, and in 2008 produced the acclaimed documentary La Vida Loca (Crazy Life).

To see Poveda's haunting portraits of El Salvadorian gang members, whom he called "victims of society," click here. For more of his work, click here.

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Fiore Cartoon: Dough for Drug Lord

Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:19 PM EDT

First there was Cash for Clunkers. Now, there's...Cash for Karzai?

According to satirist Mark Fiore, America's love of alliteration doesn't end there. Watch his cartoon after the jump.

Report: University Researchers Get Average of $33K/Yr from Medical Industry

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:05 PM EDT

University researchers and lab workers receive on average $33,417 per year in payments from the drug and medical device industry; researchers who lead medical trials fare even better, earning more than $110,000 per year, more than a quarter of their total funding. This is according to a survey of more than 3000 life science faculty at 50 leading universities, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Academics and medical researchers frequently claim that industry ties have no effect on their objectivity or results, but the report tells a different story: Researchers with ties to industry exhibited "a substantially greater portion of documented positive outcomes," the report notes. Other studies have made similar findings.

Basically, researchers backed by industry have little incentive to report negative results that could derail the profitable commercialization of their products. With university-corporate partnerships corrupting the ivory tower, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called for the government to step in. Since the Vioxx scandal of 2005, it has pushed the Food and Drug Administration to conduct its own in-depth safety trials before drugs are approved. But that would mean creating a larger government health bureaucracy. And we all know how that's going.

H/T 60-Second Science Blog.

What Went Wrong?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 4:27 PM EDT

Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times magazine this week about how economists got everything so wrong.  "As I see it," he says, "the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth."  Brad DeLong puts it this way:

The big lesson, I think, is that Wall Street is much less sophisticated than we imagined it was: Goldman Sachs simply did not do any of the due diligence it needed to do to understand the AIG-specific risks it was assuming, Citigroup was unable to manage its own derivatives book to understand what "liquidity put" risks it was assuming, and as for Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch — hoo boy...

Oh my, yes.  Wall Street bankers are smart, and rich, and experienced, and knowledgable — but they aren't sophisticated.  They are hairless apes a few gene mutations removed from the savannah who only think they're sophisticated.

So what to do?  Krugman thinks the Great Recession will affect macroeconomics about the same way that black body radiation1 affected physics: it will uproot it completely.  Markets are no longer plausibly efficient, neoclasscial economics plainly doesn't work, and market agents are far more irrational than anyone thinks:

So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.

Many economists will find these changes deeply disturbing. It will be a long time, if ever, before the new, more realistic approaches to finance and macroeconomics offer the same kind of clarity, completeness and sheer beauty that characterizes the full neoclassical approach. To some economists that will be a reason to cling to neoclassicism, despite its utter failure to make sense of the greatest economic crisis in three generations. This seems, however, like a good time to recall the words of H. L. Mencken: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

Sounds like a good time to become an economist, if you ask me.  There's work to be done.

1Sorry for the obscure reference, non-science folks.  Max Planck's solution to the black body radiation problem in 1900 was the starting point of quantum mechanics, which uprooted all of classical physics.  See here for more.

MoJo on MSNBC: Contractors Behaving Badly Edition

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 3:21 PM EDT

A clip from my appearance on MSNBC this morning, where I spoke with Monica Novotny about the latest developments in ArmorGroup-gate. What is the State Department going to do about this debacle? Good question, Monica.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy


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Hey, What's in That New Afghanistan Report?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 3:00 PM EDT

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just finished a press conference at the Pentagon. The subject: the strategic assessment of the Afghanistan war submitted this week by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of US and NATO troops there.

Pentagon reporters repeatedly asked the pair if McChrystal would be requesting more troops and pressed the two on how the Pentagon would process such a request were it to come. One journalist asked if it would be possible for the White House and the Pentagon to say no to a request for more soldiers.

Gates and Mullen over and over said that McChrystal had not yet asked for anything, noting that a request for more "resources" would not come until later in the review process.

After Gates and Mullen fielded queries for about half an hour, the press conference ended. As the two got up to leave, a reporter yelled, "What does the McChrystal report say?" The men kept on walking.

That's right. For the entire press conference, no one had asked the obvious question: what's in the report?

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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Paying for Healthcare

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is unhappy about liberals' inability to construct a decent message on healthcare — or anything else, for that matter:

In the past few months, we have seen the other side churn their messages about the failures of “big government,” driving the fear of a “government take-over,” of “government-run health care.” Democrats have managed to produce little clear messaging, despite being blessed with the most comical set of data in the world’s history:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
United Kingdom: $2992
Average of OECD developed nations: $2964
Japan: $2581

You almost have to twist a mustachio as you read such ridiculous data. But Democrats refuse to discuss those data — refuse to say what they so plainly mean. The other side rails against Big Government. Our side is mostly silent about the Big Interests which have produced those comical data — at the people’s expense.

Well, there's a reason that data is rarely mentioned: it's because the Democratic plans on offer right now do very little to change it.  For all the sturm und drang about rationing and killing grandma and so forth, the House and Senate bills currently on the table would have a pretty modest impact on the future growth of healthcare costs.

And there's a reason for that too: the only way to cut costs is to piss off the people who benefit from those high costs: doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, device manufacturers, and big pharma — all aided and abetted by patients who never, ever want to be told no.  It would be nice to think that we could enrage all these groups and still pass a healthcare bill based on sheer populist rebellion, but that's not in the cards.  It just isn't.

So, yeah: we spend a lot more money than other countries.  Our doctors get paid a lot more.  Our insurance companies have way higher administrative costs.  The pill makers charge us twice as much as they charge Danes and Italians.  We should have spent the last ten years filling the airwaves with this stuff.

But we didn't.  Conservative were in charge of the country and we were busy with a terrorist attack, a couple of wars, endless tax cut fights, Social Security privatization, Republican scandals, warrantless wiretapping, torture in U.S. prisons, global warming, and a hundred other things.  There's only so much you can do.  So now that we have a chance to do something, our only option, really, is to bribe all the special interests and try to get something passed that does about a tenth of what it should.  And even at that, it'll pass — if it passes — by the slimmest of margins.

And then we go back and keep pushing.  And get another tenth.  And another.  Because every tenth that works well makes it easier to pass the next tenth.  And every tenth helps restore public faith in the ability of government to work.  That won't happen overnight, but at least Obama's first tenth will get it started.

And for those of you who want to get started now, the most recent international comparisons from the OECD are below.  The United States clocks in at $7,290 per person as of 2007 (the latest data available), twice as much as nearly every other country in the world.  And whether you realize it or not, that all comes out of your paycheck, one way or another.  Cut the costs and your paycheck goes up.

Obama "Indoctrinating" Kids?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 2:01 PM EDT

On September 8, Obama's all set to give a back-to-school speech to American students, in which he will encourage them to study hard, set goals, and take responsibility for their own education. Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Wrong! That is, according to Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer, who "as the father of four children," is "absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

I won't spoil the rest of the press release for you, but suffice it to say that the phrase "Christmas Parties are now Holiday Parties" is invoked.

Via Politico.

Florida Caves on Climate Change

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 1:34 PM EDT

Not long ago, Florida Republican Charlie Crist was known across the country as "the environmental governor." As his first major initiative, he brought in fellow moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger to headline a Summit on Global Climate Change. He created a climate "action team" that issued reports that could have come out of the Sierra Club. And he signed green executive orders and pledged support for cap and trade. Florida, after all, is set to be inundated by rising sea levels and hammered by stronger hurricanes. In 2007, Crist said "global climate change is one of the most important issues we face this century."

That was then. Now, as Crist prepares to enter the state's Republican Senate primary, he's starting to sound less like climatologist James Hansen than Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe. Last week, his administration told other states that Florida would not join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the East Coast's cap and trade scheme, or present a proposed cap and trade rule to the Florida legislature. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection said the decision was prompted by "the strong liklihood of federal action on climate policy."

Environmental groups aren't buying that explanation. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said the move was a major blow to the 10-state RGGI effort; Florida's participation would have increased the size of the program by 75 percent and likely raised the price of emissions permits. It also would have helped build a bipartisan case for federal legislation. "Gov. Crist’s retreat signifies that it is becoming increasing difficult for environmentally concerned citizens to advance in today’s Republican Party," said Florida PEER directory Jerry Phillips, "and that is a real shame."

A column in Tuesday's Orlando Sentinel notes that the 2009 legislative session in Florida was "a disaster for greenies." The House killed climate change legislation, and along with it, mandates for renewable energy. Crist says there may be no climate change summit this year. "Simply do the political calculation," writes Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas. "He would easily beat any Democrat in the Senate race. . .So environmentalists are of little use to him now. . .And when it comes to climate change, there is nothing in it for Crist anymore."

 

Does the President Have a Poker Tell?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

It's well-known that President Obama is a poker player. But is he any good? All signs right now point to "no." In poker, it's crucially important that the other players not know what your hand is. If you have a tic or a habit that tips people off about what you might be holding, you're much more likely to lose. This morning's New York Times suggests that the Obama White House has just that problem:

"It’s so important to get a deal," a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid about strategy. "He will do almost anything it takes to get one."

Telling the New York Times that you are desperate to make a deal on health care is the political equivalent of telling your poker opponent that you have the hammer. The President is giving a prime-time speech on health care to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. If you're rooting for health care reform, you had better hope Obama's slow-playing a monster hand, and not just on tilt.