2009 - %3, December

Security Madness

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 1:28 PM EST

You have got to be kidding me. Here's the reaction to our latest Osama wannabe's ludicrously failed terrorist plot:

According to a statement posted Saturday morning on Air Canada’s Web site, the Transportation Security Administration will severely limit the behavior of both passengers and crew during flights in United States airspace — restricting movement in the final hour of flight. Late Saturday morning, the T.S.A. had not yet included this new information on its own Web site.

“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”

I'll refrain from further comment until TSA makes this official. Hopefully Air Canada just jumped the gun here. Because if this is true, it means our government has finally and irrevocably gone insane.

UPDATE: Plus there's this from an accompanying story:

In effect, that means passengers on flights of about 90 minutes or less will not be able to get out of their seats, since they are not allowed to move about while an airplane is climbing to its cruising altitude.

Air Canada also told its United States bound customers that they would be limited to a single carry-on item and that they would be subjected to personal and baggage searches at security check points and in the gate area. It said this would result in significant delays, canceled flights and missed connections. Air Canada said it would waive the baggage fee for the first checked bag as a result of the new policy.

Aaron Potter comments: "If this is true, So much for flying with kids." And it means the end of carry-on baggage entirely for anyone who also has a purse or a briefcase.

Apparently al-Qaeda doesn't need to bother with real terrorism anymore: just light off a firecracker on a plane and the U.S. government will react as if a major city had been leveled. Why not just ban air flight entirely and be done with it?

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The Pink Pussycat

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 12:26 PM EST

Alice Schiller, once the owner (with her husband Harry) of the Pink Pussycat nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, has died. This is from the LA Times obituary:

Opened in 1961, it was pink through and through, just like the inside of Schiller's house and her entire wardrobe....Schiller and her husband drove a pink Cadillac and a pink Rolls-Royce, which bore the words "Follow Us to the Pink Pussycat.

I thought you might all like to see a picture of that Rolls before it was painted pink. That's it, parked in front of our little stucco house in Orange County around 1960 or so. That's my sister standing in front of it, ever so fashionable in her yellow raingear and red boots.

Somewhere I have a picture of the Rolls being unloaded off a ship in Long Beach before my father took possession of it. As you can imagine, this purchase was a boondoggle of the highest order, the car's chief claim to fame being the fact that my brother was almost born in its back seat in 1961. But say this for it: it got everyone to St. Mary's hospital just in time for a happy ending. The next year, we sold it to the Schillers, who painted it pink and eventually installed it in front of the nightclub.

At least, that's my recollection of the story. My mother isn't home right now, so I can't swear to every detail. But that's my connection to today's news. Just thought I'd share.

Real Financial Regulation

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 11:56 AM EST

Nicole Gelinas writes in the LA Times that the proposed new Financial Services Oversight Council wouldn't work:

Such an "omniscient" regulator could not have prevented our current crisis. Five years ago, such a regulator likely would have declared triple-A-rated mortgage-related securities safe, allowing financial firms to borrow more liberally against them than they could against seemingly riskier securities. The bankrupting losses that eventually occurred from such borrowing seemed impossible back then.

Well, she's got a point. They probably would have looked kindly on financial "innovation" back in 2004. Still, it's possible that a regulator independent from the Fed would have at least a fighting chance of not being completely captured by the banking industry and therefore applying a little bit of pushback against the swelling tide of the finance lobby. Besides, does Gelinas have a better idea?

Oh wait, she does:

Congress should instead follow the regulatory philosophy that served the nation well for 50 years after the Depression: Set consistent limits on borrowing across similar financial instruments, no matter what their perceived risks.

....In 2000, for example, the Federal Reserve counseled Congress to prohibit borrowing limits and requirements to disclose trading activity on some new financial instruments, including credit-default swaps. Regulators believed that they, and financial industry executives, had already done what today's proposed systemic risk regulator would do: identify and erase the potential for error.

What if regulators had instead allowed innovation to flourish within some reasonable rules? AIG, for example, would have had to put a consistent cash percentage down behind the $500 billion in promises — a form of borrowing — that it made through credit-default swaps. And it would have had to execute those promises on public exchanges, making them transparent.

AIG might have gone under anyway — failure is a healthy part of capitalism — but it would not have threatened to take the economy with it, necessitating a government bailout that set a dangerous precedent....Borrowing limits in the housing market would have protected the economy too. As the bubble expanded, people would not have been able to keep up with a requirement for, say, a consistent 20% down payment, thus dampening demand. And when the bubble burst, it would not have left behind so much unpaid debt.

I'd make that trade. In fact, with a few exceptions, I'd trade virtually all of the proposed financial regulations for a single set of new standards that placed clear, simple, and direct limits on financial leverage everywhere in the system. Banks, hedge funds, consumers, you name it. If it's leverage, there's a limit to it.

Anyway, it's the day after Christmas and I don't suppose anyone cares about this. But I do! And besides, Nicole Gelinas had the misfortune to have her op-ed run on Christmas Day itself, probably the single most ignored day of the year on the op-ed pages. (There are no ads for after-Christmas sales on the editorial pages, after all.) So I figured she could use a little break.

Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza

| Fri Dec. 25, 2009 11:00 AM EST

I asked for festive cats, I got festive cats.  So here they are.  Here on the front page we have the usual suspects: Domino on the left, sporting a festive Yuletide ribbon, and Inkblot on the right, hanging out under the Christmas tree waiting for Santa to deliver a case of cat food. But there are loads more cats below the fold. Just click here to see them all.

Merry Christmas!

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 3:24 PM EST

Christmas Eve is here and it's time for my traditional ornamental signoff.  I'll be back in a couple of days, but in the meantime I hope everyone has a nice Christmas, full of friends and family and food that your doctor wouldn't approve of. And be sure to check in tomorrow for our first annual holiday cat extravaganza. A couple of dozen festive felines will be gracing the blog, all intent on making your day merrier. You don't want to miss that, do you?

Senate Passes Health Care Reform

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 11:49 AM EST

So, after much scare mongering, hand wringing, and deal making, and pork slinging, the Senate has just finally passed its version of health care reform. Now the battle to reconcile the House and Senate bills starts, and that's where the real fun lies. Meanwhile the circular firing squad has begun. Kevin fills you in on what you need to know.

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Healthcare's Penultimate Hurdle

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 11:31 AM EST

Ezra Klein calls it "winning ugly," but a win's a win: early this morning the Senate voted 60-39 to pass its healthcare reform plan, only the second time in American history that a healthcare bill of this magnitude has even reached the Senate floor. Next stop: a House-Senate conference committee after the winter recess and then one final vote for all the marbles, probably in late January.

So why do I not feel more elated? Part of the reason is that in the modern era of the institutional filibuster, 60 votes is a paper-thin margin and there's still a chance that someone could come back from recess bloodied and beaten up and looking for a pretext to change their vote. The conference report might give them an excuse, and that would mean healthcare reform dies again.

But I think that's unlikely. The bigger reason, of course, is that healthcare has splintered the liberal movement so badly. There's a far-left wing so obsessed with the demise of the public option that it's working overtime to team up with reactionaries to destroy the bill and — maybe — Obama's presidency along with it. The more moderate left supports the bill, but hardly enthusiastically. For us, it's a "starter house," or "the best we could get." That's not exactly a rallying cry. And independents are just confused and exhausted by months of political sniping, intra-left bickering, and the relentless flood of Beck/Palin/Drudge demagoguery.

So it doesn't feel much like a victory yet. But it should. I'm 51 years old and this bill is, without question, the biggest progressive advance in my adult life. You have to go back to the great environmental acts of the early 70s to get close, and to the civil rights/Medicare era to beat it. That's four decades, the last three of which have constituted an almost unbroken record of conservative ascendency. And now that ascendancy is just days away from being — finally, decisively — broken. Warts and all, we're on the cusp of passing a bill that provides all of this:

  • Insurers have to take all comers.  They can't turn you down for a preexisting condition or cut you off after you get sick.
  • Community rating.  Within a few broad classes, everyone gets charged the same amount for insurance.
  • Individual mandate.  (Remember how we all argued that this was a progressive feature back when John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were championing it during the primaries?)
  • A significant expansion of Medicaid.
  • Subsidies for low and middle income workers that keeps premium costs under 10% of income.
  • Limits on ER charges to low-income uninsured emergency patients.
  • Caps on out-of-pocket expenses.
  • A broad range of cost-containment measures.
  • A dedicated revenue stream to support all this.

A trillion dollars in benefit for low and middle income workers. 95% of Americans insured. Medical bankruptcies on the verge of disappearing. And for the first time ever, an acknowledgement that decent healthcare ought to be universal in the United States. This is historic. This is a cause for celebration, not recriminations. As recently as 2005, I wasn't sure I'd ever see this day, and now, a mere three years later, it's here. I can still hardly believe it.

UPDATE: Some good thoughts in a similar vein here from Jon Chait.

AIDS: Top 10 Humanitarian Crises of 2009

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 8:00 AM EST

World leaders who promised to support universal AIDS treatment coverage at the G8 summit back in 2005 are backing out, causing the pandemic to rank in as one of 2009's top ten humanitarian crises, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced Monday.

HIVs relation to tuberculosis snagged it a spot on the 12th annual list last year. What insured its placement on the roll this time around is a lack of funding that is foiling AIDS eradication in developing countries by threatening to leave an estimated 10 million infected people without treatment.

G8 governments made specific commitments in support of Africa at the 2005 summit, with the U.S. pledging to lead the battle against HIV/AIDS with programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Led by Bush, the program thrived, but it's Obama who's tightening the purse-strings on PEPFAR's reach. His "five-year strategy" for the program sets the bar at 4 million people on antiretroviral drugs by 2014. Sounds good, but the program has put 2.4 million people on the drugs since 2004, or almost 500,000 a year on average. Adding only 1.6 million over the next five years means just 320,000 additional cases each year. This isn't enough to curb the spread of the epidemic; nearly 3 million people got infected with HIV in 2008, according to UNAIDS.

One passage from the MSF AIDS report is especially alarming:

In some African countries disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, people seeking treatment are being turned away from clinics. Patients already seeking [antiretroviral] therapy are being forced to interrupt their treatment because they can no longer afford it, thus increasing their chances of becoming sick and developing resistance to drugs.

News like this is disheartening since the inability to afford treatment discourages many people, in places like Ghana for instance, from even getting tested. I investigated poverty's link to the spread of HIV/AIDS in that country for The Spectator, a Ghanaian weekly, and here's a sample of what I found:

The inability of many people living with HIV to afford antiretroviral treatment is also causing the virus to spread. Ninety-five percent of people living with HIV in Ghana are unemployed, according to the PLWHA. The treatment cost 5 Ghana Cedis a month, causing many people not to take it. This is dangerous since the treatment makes the disease less infectious, according to UNAIDS. “Unfortunately for us the number of people who are supposed to do antiretroviral therapy, we are unable to support because of lack of funding and the need for facilities that do that,” [Dr. Robert Mensah, Reproductive Health Programme Officer at the UNFPA] says.

Due to the high unemployment rate and lack of accommodations faced by people living with the virus, [Clement Azigwe, National President of the Association of Persons Living with HIV (PLWHA)] urges the government to provide more social services to people who are positive as a means of defeating the disease.

“We want the government to empower people living with HIV, to do more income generating activity to help support our funding,” Azigwe says. “We have to look at those infected to give them care, empowering them economically.”

Since PEPFAR's new goal limits the availability of free ARV therapy, the know-your-status propaganda that spot many African streets may be met with even more public cynicism, marking 2010 as a tumultuous year for AIDS fighters yet. Let's hope AIDS drops off this Top 10 list next year.

A Terry Gilliam Christmas

| Thu Dec. 24, 2009 6:34 AM EST

It's been four years since Terry Gilliam's last film—the surreal Tideland, starring Jeff Bridges. Now, for Christmas, the Monty Python animator-turned-filmmaker has given us The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a production that was a roller coaster ride even by Gilliam standards. (Speaking of which, Gilliam is taking another crack at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote—and Robert Duvall has reportedly agreed to play the lead.) Imaginarium is very Terry, with more than a small dose of the Python vibe. It's a dark, absurdist joyride pitting imagination against apathy and an ancient protagonist (Christopher Plummer) against the Devil (Tom Waits). It's a lot of fun. Go see it.

I spoke with Gilliam about how the film was thrown into complete disarray by the death of leading man Heath Ledger. That's a familiar narrative by now, but we also talked about the director's upbringing, his neuroses, his rep as a Hollywood nemesis, and his decision to give up American citizenship—not to mention sign that controversial petition in support of Roman Polanski. And of course, we talked about the constant struggle to sell his ideas: "It's enough hard work making the movie, and then you have to go out and blow the trumpet and beat the drum and do all these things," he told me in a bit that didn't make the edited interview. "Actually this part of the selling, at the end, is just repetitious. The difficult selling is at the beginning, trying to get the money."

Retreating Glaciers Starve Oceans

| Wed Dec. 23, 2009 8:35 PM EST

Just when I thought I couldn't be surprised by yet another falling domino in the cascade of negative effects from global climate changejolt. A study  of Alaskan glaciers in the prestigious journal Nature finds that as glacial ice disappears, so does high-quality food from the marine foodweb.

Here's how it works:

  • As they flow into the sea, glaciers fringing the Gulf of Alaska export dissolved organic matter left over from extinct forests overrun by ice.
  • The surprise is that this organic matter turns out to be super biologically active (read: nutrient-rich), above and beyond what's found in nonglacial rivers.
  • The second surprise is that this particular brand of dissolved organic matter does not decreases in quality as it ages (like most such particulate).
  • Instead, this 4,000-year-old stuff turns out to be super nutritious, with up to 66 percent of it rapidly metabolized by tiny marine microbes, instantaneously becoming part of the living biomass and supporting the greater marine foodweb.

The problem is that Alaskan glaciers are receding and disappearing in a warmer world. Therefore the input of this valuable food source is disappearing. What's at stake? Well, the glacial-fed rivers fringing the Gulf of Alaska discharge as much water as the Mississippi River into a marine system harboring the most productive salmon fishery in the world. For starters.

Poof. We figure it out and then it's gone. Another example of what I'm beginning to think of as the twisted quantum observer effect.