2012 - %3, July

Random News Quotes Not as Random as You Might Think

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 11:34 AM EDT

Atrios links today to a Ryan Chittum piece at CJR that revolves around a small businessman named Drew Greenblatt who seems to have a side business as man-on-the-street for news reporters. Just in June alone, he got quoted by the New York Times (three times), NBC Nightly News, PBS Newshour (twice), NPR’s Morning Edition, and The Hamilton Spectator. Earlier in the year he got hits from CNN Newsroom and Fox Business (four times), the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

You will be unsurprised to learn that Greenblatt is not just some random steel wire manufacturer from Baltimore. He's an executive-committee member of the board of the National Association of Manufacturers, a DC trade lobby. Chittum explains:

Here’s how you should assume this works, because it’s how it very often does: A journalist is on deadline on a story and needs an anecdote to make it feel “real” with some color—preferably someone who will add balance and/or support the journalist’s thesis. A speed-dialed call is made to industry flacks to supply a quotable small-business person…and, voilà!

Right. But don't assume this is only the case for industry flacks. Suppose you need an anecdote about credit card fraud. Who ya gonna call? Consumer groups will be happy to hook you up with a fully vetted sob story. An anecdote about malpractice abuse? There are plenty of business groups that can put you in touch with a doctor who has an outrageous story to tell. Someone ripped off by a mortgage lender? You get the idea: just call a group that specializes in lobbying for tougher mortgage regulation. They've got plenty of examples.

Journalists like to talk a lot about ethics and transparency. But here's a transparency rule I'd like to see: when you quote an alleged random man on the street, tell us how you found him. Did you really hoof around until you finally got what you wanted? Is he a friend of your cousin's? Did you call an interest group and ask for someone? Did you ask for contacts via Twitter or Facebook? If reporters were required to tell us, I think you'd be surprised at how few of these random examples turn out to be truly random.

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Romney's Bain Story Is Falling Apart

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 11:10 AM EDT
Mitt Romney speaking at a rally in Ohio in March 2012.

UPDATE: Bain released a statement to Politico saying that "Mitt Romney left Bain Capital in February 1999," and that "Due to the sudden nature of Mr. Romney's departure, he remained the sole stockholder for a time while formal ownership was being documented and transferred to the group of partners who took over management of the firm in 1999," which is why he was listed on the SEC filings after his claimed departure. Bain's statement doesn't address or challenge Mother Jones' reporting about Romney investing in companies that outsourced prior to 1999. 

Despite Mitt Romney's claims that he left Bain Capital in 1999, Securities and Exchange Commission documents show that Romney was still listed as the owner of the company in 2002, three years later. The documents, reported on today by the Boston Globe, contradict Romney's claims that he was not running Bain when it was investing in companies that were moving jobs overseas. The Globe quotes a Romney adviser who acknowledges that the campaign's claims regarding Romney's lack of involvement "do not square with common sense."

The charge that Romney moved jobs overseas while running Bain has been central to the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney. Until now, fact-checkers like the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler have described the Obama campaign's claims as misleading because of Romney's assertion that he stopped managing Bain in 1999. However, Mother Jones' David Corn reported Wednesday that Bain invested in companies that outsourced jobs prior to the time Romney says he left, and the documents cited by the Globe show that Romney was still listed as an executive at Bain during the time the Obama campaign accuses the company of outsourcing jobs.

The website Factcheck.org called the Obama campaign's claims "weak," stating that if they were true, Romney might have committed a felony by making false statements in his financial disclosure forms where he stated that he "has not had any active role with any Bain Capital entity and has not been involved in the operations of any Bain Capital entity in any way." A Romney spokesperson told Politico's Dylan Byers that Romney had not committed a crime. 

The Boston Globe is not the first to report evidence that Romney may have been misleading the public about when he left Bain. Following a Mother Jones report two weeks ago showing that Romney was at Bain when it invested in a medical waste firm that disposed of aborted fetuses, my colleague Nick Baumann noted that several public documents indicated Romney was still involved with Bain years after he claimed to have left. Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall posted SEC filings where Romney's "principal occupation" is listed as "managing director of Bain Capital, Inc."

The Globe is updating its story to credit Mother Jones and other news organizations. Martin Baron, the paper's editor, told Politico's Dylan Byers that attribution was removed during the editing process by mistake.

Romney told attendees at a fundraiser in Montana on Wednesday to tell their friends that "if they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy — more free stuff."

The Globe notes that after he claims to have left, Romney "continued to draw a six-figure salary from Bain Capital." Does that count as "free stuff?"

More Healthcare is in Your Future

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 10:46 AM EDT

The residential housing bust may be over, but commercial real estate remains in the doldrums. With the growing efficiency of online retailing, Matt Yglesias thinks this slump may be permanent:

I think people tend to overstate the level of real resource misallocation involved in the 2002-2005 house-building boom. By now America is already underhoused by historical standards. But commercial real estate is another matter. The current downturn will end, and CRE construction will returm to some extent, but I don't think the business of building shopping centers will ever come back. Retrofitting existing ones as health care facilities, by contrast, should be a booming business.

Yes indeed. See that little shopping center on the right? It's about half a mile from my house. It used to have a Radio Shack, a Chevy's restaurant, a dry cleaners, a chi-chi gift store, an Asian noodle restaurant, and a bunch of other miscellaneous shops. But now? The Irvine Company decided several years ago to turn it into a professional services center, with "professional" defined as doctors and dentists of various kinds. There are still some other kinds of shops there, but I assume that as their leases run out, most of them will be converted into medical space.

The good news for CRE, of course, is that buildings are buildings. Construction companies make just as much money building professional offices as they do shopping centers. In fact, maybe someday they'll start building health malls as big and fabulous as the Mall of America, with plenty of entertainment options to give everyone (and the kids!) something to do while they wait around endlessly for their loved one's latest round of chemo. Welcome to the future.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 12, 2012

Thu Jul. 12, 2012 10:44 AM EDT

US Army Sgt. Eric Rothenberger, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, checks his sights while pulling security at an alleyway in the village of Kunday. The mission was to facilitate members of the female engagement team as they conducted key leader engagements to promote a female health education program. Photo by the US Army.

GOP Health Care Plan Is Still a Dud

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 6:04 AM EDT

This week, the House GOP voted for the 33rd time to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature health care reform law. But the only alternative they've offered up to the Democratic plan is essentially the same one they've been pitching for more than a decade: more restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits, which they claim are out of control and a significant driver of health care costs. On Tuesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) spent a considerable amount of his time at a hearing on the impact of the ACA on patients and doctors grilling a Democratic witness about his stance on "tort reform," or limits on jury awards in malpractice suits, making clear that this is the only thing the GOP has to offer by way of alternative health care policy.

Unfortunately for the GOP's would-be tort reformers, a new report out from the nonprofit consumer group Public Citizen shows that malpractice lawsuit payouts are now at an all-time historic low, having fallen steadily for the past eight years without any impact whatsoever on escalating health care costs. Highlights from the report:

  • The number of malpractice payments on behalf of doctors (9,758 payments) was the lowest on record, having fallen for the eighth consecutive year;
  • The inflation-adjusted value of payments made on behalf of doctors ($3.2 billion) was the lowest on record. In actual dollars, payments have fallen for eight straight years and are at their lowest level since 1998;
  • The average size of medical malpractice payments (about $327,000) declined from previous years
  • Medical malpractice payments' share of the nation's health care cost was the lowest on record (just 0.12 percent of all national health care costs)

The report also challenges the notion pushed by Republicans that most malpractice lawsuits are frivolous. More than 40 percent of the lawsuit payments were in cases where people had been killed, turned into quadriplegics, or left brain damaged or in need of lifelong medical care thanks to negligence on the part of doctors or hospitals. Overall, 80 percent of the payments went to people who had major, significant and permanent injuries.

Public Citizen says there is simply no evidence that restricting malpractice lawsuits even further will have any impact on health care costs. The report points out that Texas, home state of Rep. Lamar Smith (R), who has sponsored the main tort reform legislation in Congress, severely restricted the rights of injured people to sue back in 2003. Malpractice lawsuit payouts in the state plummeted 65 percent by 2010. At the same time, though, per-patient Medicare costs and private insurance rates grew at rates faster than the national average. 

The sharp decline in lawsuit payouts is going to make it even harder for the GOP to make the already weak case that preventing victims of medical negligence from suing will somehow fix the broken health care system. At some point, they really are going to have to come up with something else.

Cruises, Pheasant-Hunting Trips, and Political Donations: The 5 Skeeziest GlaxoSmithKline Perks Revealed

| Thu Jul. 12, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Four pharmaceutical executives stand with their backs to a darkened Las Vegas auditorium. Smoke machine fog billows at their heels while a platform slowly rotates them to face thousands in the audience. A song from the Space Jam soundtrack plays, stage lights brighten, and suddenly a giant model pill dispenser is revealed on stage. Cue sparklers.

Y’all ready for this?

This is not a parody of corporate conduct. It’s Exhibit 28A, a video (above) uploaded by the Department of Justice last week from court documents pertaining to the "largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history." The scene itself is from the real and not-so-distant past, at GlaxoSmithKline's 2001 sales launch for its asthma medication Advair, which the company promoted as first-line therapy for mild asthma patients. The study that conclusion came from, however, had been flatly rejected by the FDA, and later received a black box warning as the result of deaths in halted clinical trials. The US complaint alleged that GSK continued to market the product as such anyway—as recently as 2010—while providing kickbacks for high-prescribing physicians to boot.

Last week, GlaxoSmithKline agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay a total of $3 billion to resolve allegations pertaining to several other drugs, the illegal marketing of them, and the obscuring of clinical data from the FDA. "Today’s multibillion dollar settlement is unprecedented in both size and scope," Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole said in a press conference.

The investigation unearthed at least a decade's worth of physician kickbacks, fraudulent marketing, and various other kinds of legal (and ethical) boundaries breached, though this kind of behavior seems par for the course across the industry: Last year, Johnson & Johnson, pleading guilty to bribing foreign doctors, agreed to fork up $70 million in fines. As of April, Bristol-Myers Squibb has been subpoenaed by the SEC (likely for something similar), and Merck, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca have said they are also cooperating with investigations, according to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, as Forbes highlighted, the market hasn't blinked—GSK's stock prices are dandy. Still, the evidence is up and available on the web for anyone to peruse: emails detailing how physicians are to be plied with basketball tickets, a flier for a GSK-sponsored yacht trip, payments made to Dr. Drew Pinsky (yes, the Dr. Drew) as he marketed off-label uses of anti-depressant Wellbutrin, and a physician assistant's request for a deep tissue massage. Deep-sea fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, horseback riding, and balloon rides were just a few of the recreational activities offered to physicians at "Paxil Forum" events held at resorts in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and California in 2000 and 2001.

So, see for yourself: A compilation of some of the most gagworthy snippets from one of Big Pharma's biggest frauds.

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Romney Courts the White Vote by Talking to the NAACP

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 5:45 PM EDT

Mitt Romney gave a speech to the NAACP today, and it didn't go well. He was interrupted by periodic booing, got poor reviews from the audience afterward, and was lambasted by NAACP leaders after he had left. This was pretty predictable, so why did Romney bother? I think Jamelle Bouie has it about right:

The point of this address to the NAACP was to send a signal to right-leaning, suburban white voters—that Mitt Romney is tolerant, and won’t represent the bigots in his party. But there’s a sense in which Romney had it both ways: Not only did he reassure hesitant whites, but by pledging to repeal Obamacare—and being booed by the audience—he likely increased his standing with those who do resent African Americans. By going to an audience of black professionals and sticking with his stump speech, there’s a sense in which Romney might receive credit for refusing to “pander.”

It's a pretty easy win for Romney. He gets points for not being afraid to venture into hostile territory, and then gets more points for not tailoring his message to win votes. He had no real chance of winning any of these votes in the first place, which means that sticking with his standard stump speech was something less than a profile in courage, but he probably earns some points anyway.

Odds of Record-Breaking Summer Heat Happening Without Climate Change? Try 1 in 1.6 Million.

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 3:54 PM EDT

You don't need science to tell you it's been really crazy hot lately in much of the United States. But seriously, it's been really stinking hot. How hot? Well, the last 12 months have been the hottest since recorded-keeping started in 1895, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Average temperatures in the continental US for the month of June were a full 2 degrees above the average for the 20th century. It was even worse in Colorado, where temperatures for June were 6.4°F above average. In the latter half of June, 170 record temperatures were broken or tied, hitting 113 in South Carolina and 112 in Georgia, for just two examples.

Sure it's summer, and summer is supposed to be hot. But not this hot—not without global warming at least. NOAA's National Climatic Data Center says that the odds of this heat wave occurring randomly would be 1 in 1,594,323. Pretty low odds. Even critics of that figure say the chances of this summer happening without global warming would be extremely low at 1 in 100,000.

It's not just this year. A new paper published by the American Meteorological Society this month, highlighted in the New York Times on Wednesday, looked at the data on 2011. That paper found that the drought due to high temperatures in Texas last year were “distinctly more probable” than they would have been 40-50 years ago, thanks to global warming. And the high temperatures in the United Kingdom in November 2011 were made 62 times more likely to occur by global warming.

Of course, saying any specific weather event happened "because of" climate change is difficult. But the AMS paper does a good job of explaining what these attribution studies really show:

One analogy of the effects of climate change on extreme weather is with a baseball player (or to choose another sport, a cricketer) who starts taking steroids and afterwards hits on average 20% more home runs (or sixes) in a season than he did before. For any one of his home runs (sixes) during the years the player was taking steroids, you would not know for sure whether it was caused by steroids or not. But you might be able to attribute his increased number to the steroids. And given that steroids have resulted in a 20% increased chance that any particular swing of the player’s bat results in a home run (or a six), you would be able to make an attribution statement that, all other things being equal, steroid use had increased the probability of that particular occurrence by 20%.

Speaking of steroids, the scientists at the University Corporation for Atmospheric research (UCAR) recently made this excellent video explaining this as well:

Climate Change Driving Salmon Evolution

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 3:50 PM EDT

Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha): NOAA | Fisheries ServicePink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha): NOAA | Fisheries ServiceTwo of our hottest-button topics—climate change and evolution—are now linked by genetic research on migrating salmon.

The results, published in a new paper in the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, report on groundbreaking evidence that climate change is driving the evolution of pink salmon in Alaska.

DNA data clearly show a genetic selection for earlier migrating fish during the last three decades.

This is particularly interesting because although there are many observations of earlier migrations among a variety of species in response to a warming climate, it's not clear whether this is a result of behavioral adaptation or genetic change or both.

Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population: Ryan P. Kovach, et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population. Frequency of late migration marker allele (black diamond) and a control allele (white circle): Ryan P. Kovach, et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158

The authors drew on an archive of genetic data for pink salmon dating back to the 1970s, when Auke Creek, Alaska, hosted two genetically distinct populations that migrated at different times: early and late. The archive included the work of a close collaborator, who selectively bred late-migrating fish in Auke Creek with a genetic marker.

Through the 1980s, between 27 and 39 percent of Auke Creek migrators bore the genetic marker of late migrators. But in 1989 the marker began to rapidly disappear. By 2011 it was effectively gone—present in only about 5 percent of the fish.

Today it's no longer possible to distinguish the early migrators from the late migrators by the frequency of the genetic marker in the population.

Why? From the paper:

Although we do not know the specific selective pressures that led to earlier migration timing in this population, stream temperatures during peak migration timing in 1989 were the second highest on record, and we observed substantial genetic changes... in the progeny from this spawning generation. Migrating pink salmon appear to avoid high stream temperatures; given the trend in migration timing, changes in the genetic marker and increasing stream temperatures in Auke Creek, it appears that earlier-migrating fish may have higher fitness in warmer years... and there is evidence that early-migrating adult fish are adapted to warmer conditions at multiple life stages and life-history events (e.g. juvenile developmental rates and migration timing, and adult migration timing, lifespan and breeding date).


Auke Bay, Alaska: endora57 | Kathy Neufeld via FlickrAuke Bay, Alaska: endora57 | Kathy Neufeld via Flickr

The selection for a different trait—in this case earlier migration—has implications for overall genetic diversity:

Although microevolution may have allowed this population to successfully track environmental change, it may have come at the cost of a decrease of within-population biocomplexity—the loss of the late run. This is not a surprising result; by definition, directional selection will decrease genetic variation. However, it does highlight the importance of maintaining sufficient genetic and phenotypic variation within populations in order for them to have the ability to respond to environmental change.

And that ties in with research I reported on recently here that extinctions are just as nasty as global warming in driving global change. So the new salmon work implies, at least to me, that there may also be positive feedback loops developing between warming temperatures, dwindling biocomplexity, dwindling biodiversity, and human wellbeing.

The ♥ open-access paper:

  • Ryan P. Kovach, Anthony J. Gharrett, and David A. Tallmon. Genetic change for earlier migration timing in a pink salmon population. Proceedings f the Royal Society B. DOI:10.1098/rspb.2012.1158.

Romney Falls Flat in NAACP Appearance

| Wed Jul. 11, 2012 1:54 PM EDT
Mitt Romney at the NAACP.

Mitt Romney's speech to the NAACP Wednesday didn't go spectacularly well. Although he received a largely cordial reception, he was booed when he promised to repeal Barack Obama's signature domestic accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act.

Some analysts have suggested the boos may help Romney by making him look magnanimous and showing that he's willing to appear before an unfriendly audience to make his pitch. It's doubtful, given Romney's reaction and the campaign's decision to send out a version of the video with the boos edited out, that getting booed was part of Romney's plan. Nevertheless, the Romney campaign is likely to use the boos to its advantage going forward. Conservative pundits, already wary of at the NAACP for previous slights, will foment outrage on his behalf. Politically, it's hard to see how the appearance hurt Romney, or how it could have—so it's overstated as an example of political valor.

There are substantive reasons why Romney's pitch fell flat. Romney told the NAACP that "I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African American families, you would vote for me for president." This is a spectacularly bad pitch for any politician, because it happens to matter very little what candidates feel in their heart. What matters is the party they represent, and the policies they've committed to pursuing. 

The economic crisis has lead to a collapse of minority wealth, and black Americans continue to have a higher unemployment rate than whites. But even here, the GOP's message to black voters is hampered by the false Republican narrative that laws banning discrimination in lending led to the crisis, and, as Slate's Dave Weigel points out, a Republican-backed policy of austerity has disproportionately affected black people, who are more likely to work for the government. The audience at the NAACP is not going to take kindly to the suggestion that lending institutions need more leeway to shovel out "ghetto loans" to minorities. Nor are they likely to appreciate the argument that friends and family members deserved to lose jobs that could have been easily preserved by policies past Republican presidents have used but the GOP blocked when Obama proposed them.

The unpleasant reception to Romney's reiteration of his promise to repeal the federal health care legislation modeled on his own reforms in Massachusetts likely goes beyond a dispute about policy. Romney said prior to the Supreme Court ruling upholding most of the Affordable Care Act that if the high court overturned the law Obama's first and possibly only term would have been "wasted." By promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Romney was reminding the NAACP that he is running on a promise to erase the term of the first black president as though it never happened.

During her controversial routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2009, comedian Wanda Sykes joked that "You're proud to be able to say that, The First Black President. That's unless you screw up. Then it's going to be, 'What's up with the half-white guy, huh? Who voted for the mulatto, what the hell?'" Part of the joke is that despite racial progress in the US, the black community will be collectively affected by whether history judges Obama's presidency as a success or failure. Even those NAACP members more favorably disposed to Republican ideas may feel the same way. That is why Romney's pledge to wipe the Obama administration from history has an unpleasant resonance for many black voters, even beyond the community's decades-long allegiance to the Democratic Party.