2009 - %3, September

Jacko Finally Laid to Rest

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:00 PM PDT

More than two months after his death, Michael Jackson is finally being buried tonight.  With Neverland evidently a no-go, the family chose to inter him intead in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale:

The cemetery prides itself on a high level of security, with guards shooing away loiterers and restricting mausoleum visits largely to people authorized by the family of the deceased.

Mark Masek, who maintains cemeteryguide.com, which tracks entertainers’ graves, said that a couple of weeks ago guards stopped him from taking pictures outside the mausoleum and forced him to delete the images.

“They are not kidding,” he said, predicting fans would have trouble finding and documenting Mr. Jackson’s crypt. “If they wanted to restrict access and keep people out, they could not have picked a better place,” he said.

Actually, that's not the half of it.  My father's parents are buried in the Great Mausoleum — granddad was apparently great friends with Forest Lawn founder Hubert Eaton — so a few years ago I trekked up there to take a look at their crypt.  The folks in the front office looked up the location for me after I demonstrated that I was indeed named Drum and therefore likely to be a genuine relative of the deceased, and off I went.  But lemme tell you: the place is a maze.  I found the right location and took a few pictures, and then spent the better part of an hour trying to find my way out.  I was afraid I'd end up spending the night there.

Plus the whole place is sort of creepy.  Not a good place to get lost.  So even if you're a Jacko fan, I recommend you skip the whole crypt worship thing.  The guards will hassle you if you're not on their approved list, and even if you do manage to finagle your way in, you might never get out.  You have been warned.

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Who Let Lehman Fail?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 7:12 PM PDT

Hmmm.  Last we heard, the official story about the collapse of Lehman Brothers blamed it on pesky legalities: Barclays was ready to do a deal to acquire Lehman at the last minute, but only if they got government backstopping as part of the acquisition.  Treasury, however, didn't have the legal authority to provide any guarantees, so there was no acquisition and Lehman went into bankruptcy.

Now, this story has always seemed a little fishy, partly because it's changed a bit from time to time, and partly because Treasury had already provided support for the rescue of Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and would provide support for AIG just a few days later.  So if they had the legal authority for that, why not Lehman?

In the Guardian today, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor report that the real reason the deal fell through was entirely different: it was just a cockup.  The Brits thought the Americans would support the deal all along, and the Americans never made it clear they wouldn't:

In London, the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority all believed that the US government would step in with a financial guarantee for the troubled Wall Street bank. The tripartite authorities insist that they always made it clear to the Americans that a possible bid from Barclays could go ahead only if sweetened by US money.

....The UK tripartite authorities — the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury — had expected the US government to stand behind Lehman in the way that it had backed two crucial mortgage lenders the previous week and helped to orchestrate the bailout for Bear Stearns in March.

If the UK authorities were expecting the Americans to bail out Lehman, that means the Americans never brought up any legal hurdles.  And they surely would have mentioned it if that's what was really standing in the way of a deal.  Right?  So what's the real reason?

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.  Especially since the Guardian piece has absolutely no sourcing whatsoever aside from the typically dramatic all-purpose British lead, "a Guardian/Observer investigation has revealed."  So take this with a grain of salt — particularly since the most likely British sources have an obvious interest in making sure someone else is to blame for the post-Lehman global financial meltdown.  No one is very eager to take the blame for that, after all

Guilt-Free Meat?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:56 PM PDT

I suppose it's a sign of some kind of progress that people are thinking about ways to produce meat without the guilt. But these ideas give me the creeps.

As New Scientist points out, we eat 300 million tons of meat a year—50 percent more than in the 1960s. Much of it comes from inhumane factory farms.

Enter Adam Shriver's controversial paper in Neuroethics arguing that we are close to, if not already at, the point of genetically engineering factory-farmed livestock who cannot suffer.

Wow. Pain-free cows. You know, that doesn't work for me. It's right up there with the Cheney method of torture. I mean, what does hurting an animal who can't (or can) feel pain do to the miserable souls stuck with (or desiring) those jobs? Post-traumatic meat disorder.

Why not genetically engineer people to abhor meat?

Meat is more bad than good for us, bad for livestock, and bad for the planet. Eating a quality vegetarian diet would benefit every single living person. Here's why and why and why and why and why and why.

Plus, eating meat is bad for cows and sheep and goats and chickens and fish and every other wiggling thing we insist on putting into our mouths. Whether they feel pain or not.

MoJo has covered more than once some of the compelling and ever accumulating reasons that eating meat is bad for the planet.

Now some thinkers are suggesting producing in-vitro meat bioengineered in Petri dishes. Jennifer Jacquet blogging at Seed calls it Frankenmeat.

I'm feeling the need to fight back against the strange bacon fetish sweeping the sweepable world.

Tofu never suffers.
 

Filmmaker, Photojournalist Killed in El Salvador

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 3:42 PM PDT

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.

Fiore Cartoon: Dough for Drug Lord

Thu Sep. 3, 2009 3:19 PM PDT

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 3:05 PM PDT

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.

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What Went Wrong?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 1:27 PM PDT

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 12:21 PM PDT

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


Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.

 

Hey, What's in That New Afghanistan Report?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 12:00 PM PDT

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.

Paying for Healthcare

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 11:23 AM PDT

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.