2009 - %3, January

The FDA's Poison Lunch Box

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 6:20 PM EST

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If I didn't know better, I'd say the FDA was engaged in a plot to kill schoolkids by poisoning them with peanut butter and honey sandwiches and a side of Yoplait. This popular lunchbox meal's virulent mix of salmonella, illegal antibiotics, and mercury is made possible, respectively, by the FDA's lax oversight of a peanut butter factory in Georgia and honey imports from China combined with its failure to care that a common method of creating high fructose corn syrup produces mercury (a fact it appears to have known since 2005). The only upside to this food pyramid of death is that it might scare parents into feeding their kids healthier foods. Spinach anyone?

Photo used under a creative commons license from Faces of Death

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White House and NY Times Face Off: Has Obama Opted for Hard Power in Afghanistan?

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:43 PM EST

Those folks who bother to worry about the war in Afghanistan--not a large slice of the population--had reason to fret on Wednesday morning when they picked up (or clicked on) the New York Times and read a front-page story noting that President Barack Obama is adopting a new "approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development." The piece cited unnamed senior administration officials.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had said that the administration was in the early stage of reevaluating Afghanistan policy. He had noted that Obama intended to meet with US Army General David McKiernan, the commander of the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, to discuss the course ahead. It seemed as if no decisions had been rendered about Afghanistan.

Yet the Times indicated key calls have already been made:

Are Pro Football Players Brain Damaged?

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:26 PM EST

From CNN:

Until recently, the best medical definition for concussion was a jarring blow to the head that temporarily stunned the senses, occasionally leading to unconsciousness. It has been considered an invisible injury, impossible to test—no MRI, no CT scan can detect it.

But today, using tissue from retired NFL athletes culled posthumously, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) is shedding light on what concussions look like in the brain. The findings are stunning. Far from innocuous, invisible injuries, concussions confer tremendous brain damage. That damage has a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE has thus far been found in the brains of five out of five former NFL players..."What's been surprising is that it's so extensive," said Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, and co-director of the CSTE. "It's throughout the brain, not just on the superficial aspects of the brain, but it's deep inside."

McKee, who also studies Alzheimer's disease, says the tangles closely resemble what might be found in the brain of an 80-year-old with dementia.

These former jocks also suffer long term anger and sleep disorders: "The damage affects the parts of the brain that control emotion, rage, hypersexuality, even breathing, and recent studies find that CTE is a progressive disease that eventually kills brain cells." Many former jocks find themselves bankrupt, divorced, and cut off from society, all without a clue as to why.

Perhaps, and I'm not being sarcastic, the damage begins quickly enough to explain some of the inexplicable problems we see among pro athletes (though basketball and baseball don't seem to offer the same out for its misbehaving players).

Needless to say, young men will still kill themselves to make it to the NFL; they're young and much fussed over. Also needless to say, the NFL denies that football causes brain damage.

The NFL is planning its own independent medical study of retired NFL players on the long-term effects of concussion.

Methinks some unemployed former Big Tobacco lobbyists and "scientists" will find themselves working again. I pray my son opts for swimming or soccer.

John Updike: RIP

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 4:03 PM EST

Updike2Resized.jpgThe biography at the end of John Updike's novels was always the same:

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of the New Yorker….

Then his life story stops, in 1957, landing him in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts.

And there he remained, for the rest of his life, raising his four children, becoming a New England gentleman even as he unflinchingly exposed the sins and hypocrisies, particularly with regard to adultery, of the American success story.

Updike, 76, died yesterday of lung cancer. An incredibly prolific author, like other fruitful writers he faced mixed reviews and the lingering suggestion that his writing served a sort of masturbatory function. Like Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, his readers came to suspect that—with more than more than 50 books—there was nothing else much to learn. "Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?" David Foster Wallace wrote, somewhat uncharitably, in a review of Updike's Toward the End of Time.

Updike's works included several series (the Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech novels), A Month of Sundays, about the midlife crisis of an Episcopal priest, Terrorist, about an American kid attracted to Al Qaeda (sort of a John Walker Lindh of working-class New Jersey), several short stories , and numerous books about adultery among the prosperous couples of suburban Massachusetts.

"Sex is like money; only too much is enough," said Piet Hanema, the protagonist in Couples, the 1968 novel that made Updike rich and put him on the cover of Time. This obvious, and somehow unsatisfying kind of realization, appeared often in Updike's work. Those weird insecurities, characters uncomfortable with their own lives, occurred over and over in his fiction. Updike was forever surprised and sort of fascinated that he was not still stuck in Pennsylvania, the son of a retail clerk with literary aspirations. Having reached the pinnacle of his profession early on, Updike was keenly aware that the neat, ironed out existence of haute-bourgeoisie America, of the two martini lunch and unacknowledged adultery, was often shallow and unsatisfying.

Unlike the characters of John Cheever, a writer to whom he was often compared—who quietly and tastefully go insane—Updike's protagonists just muddle through. Miserable in their jobs, worried about their children, unhappy with their wives, they serve as telling and honest commentary on the discomfort many Americans felt about their own accomplishments.

Because so many of Updike's characters represented Nixon's "silent majority"—white, conservative, vaguely resentful of political change—Updike was sometimes called a racist, a misogynist, and a defender of the status quo.

All of this, while possibly true, entirely misses the point. Throughout his life Updike was a committed, though not particularly outspoken, supporter of progressive causes. The fact that his characters were often old-fashioned and bigoted is to his credit. It is not, after all, the duty of a writer to show the world as it ought to be; it is to paint a compelling picture of the world as it exists and the people who inhabit it.

He was not a writer of my generation. The sort of world he observed—of Oldsmobiles and after-dinner cigarettes, of post-war success and geriatrics—is not one I inhabit. But those things always seemed to me like mere details. An incredible researcher, Updike created a diverse cast of characters: painters, preachers, computer scientists, writers, dentists, actors, building contractors—the whole gamut of 20th century American professional success. But what he managed to do for all of this characters was demonstrate that everyone had AN inner life. He created a world, over and over, in which the mundane was made complicated and compelling.

With the death of John Updike America has lost a selfish, prejudiced, and astoundingly talented man, the sort of person who could see through the barriers Americans put up and tell readers what was truly going on.

—Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user John McNab

Clawback

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 3:58 PM EST

CLAWBACK....Instead of nationalizing wobbly financial institutions, the Obama administration may be planning to set up a "bad bank" to buy up the toxic waste that's currently clogging up bank balance sheets. The problem, as usual, is valuation: buying up bad assets doesn't do any good unless you pay more than the current market price for them. After all, if $150 billion in junk is currently valued by the market at $15 billion, then the bank has a $135 billion loss on its books. Ouch. But if the feds buy it up at its market price, nothing has changed. The bank still has to book a $135 billion loss, and that loss makes it borderline insolvent and unable to loan out money.

Now, the argument the bank will give you is that the market has gone nuts: sure, mortgage defaults are up and that means mortgage-based assets have taken big losses. But "big" means maybe 30%, not 90%. Wait a few years for the panic to pass and heads to clear, and that junk will be worth $100 billion, not $15 million. That's its real value.

So if the feds are going to buy up this stuff, this story goes, they should do it at the higher price. That helps keep banks solvent, and taxpayers will get their money back down the road.

It's a nice theory. But Dean Baker says that if we're going to do this, taxpayers need more than a wink and a promise that they'll get back their investment. They need something with claws:

While the more obvious way to deal with the problem is to simply take over the bankrupt banks, and then put their junk in a bad bank, like with we did with the bankrupt thrifts in the 80s, there is a relatively easy way to limit the extent to which the bad bank is simply bank welfare.

We can just attach a clawback provision, under which the bank will be forced to make up any money that the bad bank loses on their junk, plus a penalty. For example, if Citibank sells $100 billion in junk, and the bad bank ends up selling it for $70 billion, then Citibank has to cover this $30 billion loss, plus a 20 percent penalty ($6 billion). This structure will both ensure that Citibank doesn't run off with our money and also discourage banks from trying to mislead the bad bank about the true value of their junk.

This is not as clean as nationalization, and technically speaking, I don't know how the clawback provision would show up on the bank's books. Expert opinion welcomed on this point. But if the Obama economics team wants to avoid nationalization — and I don't blame them for treating this as a last resort — this seems like the cleanest way to handle the asset side of the ledger.

CIA Officer Accused of Multiple Rapes in Algeria

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 3:23 PM EST

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It's pretty much universally accepted that Karen Hughes was a disaster as America's face to the Islamic world. But wow... this is much, much worse. ABC News reports that a 41-year old CIA station chief in Algeria (his name has not been released) was brought home last October after accusations that he had drugged and raped at least two Muslim women. As if that's not bad enough, our man in Algeria, himself a convert to Islam, videotaped his crimes. Federal investigators are aware of at least a dozen sex tapes. They've now broadened the scope of their inquiry to include Egypt, where the station chief was posted prior to his Algeria assignment.

Abu Ghraib, anyone? Guantanamo? Just when the Obama administration is trying to repair America's image, particularly in the Muslim world (Obama only this week gave an interview to Al Arabiya), we have what could be a fresh dose of gasoline on the fire of anti-Americanism. As Isobel Coleman told ABC, "It has the potential to be quite explosive if it's not handled well by the United States government. This isn't the type of thing that's going to be easily pushed under the carpet."

Indeed, and it could become an early test of Obama's crisis-management skills.

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Chart of the Day - 1.28.2009

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 2:52 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....Via Taegan Goddard, Gallup reports on tracking poll data from 2008. They conclude that there are only five solid Republican states — representing a grand total of 2% of the population — left in the entire country. Full report here. Heckuva job, GOP! Congratulations to Utah for topping the list.

*Overwhelming

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 2:25 PM EST

OVERWHELMING....Byron York reports from the trenches:

Just talked to a very clued-in Republican on the Hill. This person wouldn't predict a unanimous Republican vote against the Democratic stimulus package, but said there would be "minimal" GOP support of the bill. "I don't know if it will be unanimous, but Democrats are not going to have the kind of bipartisan support the president was trying to get," he told me. An "overwhelming" number of Republicans will vote no, he predicted.

That's pretty much what I expect too. And hey — I don't blame them, either. The job of the opposition is to oppose, and if this were some big Republican tax cut fest following a GOP victory I'd expect Democrats to oppose that overwhelmingly too.

I really don't think the opposition party owes the president any votes just because he won the election. They owe him votes if he convinces them that, on balance, one of his initiatives is a good thing for the country, or if they get some concession they want, or if they think it's political suicide to oppose him. In other words, the usual political reasons. Contrary to what our talking heads mindlessly recite after every election, honeymoons are for newlyweds, not presidents, and stuff needs to get done for four years out of four, not just for the first hundred days. It's long past time for the media to get over its preoccupation with both of these romantic notions.

Infrastructure Blues

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:49 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE BLUES....Some criticism of the stimulus bill from the left:

In testimony before the House Budget Committee yesterday, Alice M. Rivlin, who was President Bill Clinton's budget director, suggested splitting the plan, implementing its immediate stimulus components now and taking more time to plan the longer-term transformative spending to make sure it is done right.

"Such a long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package. The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away," said Rivlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The risk, she said, is that "money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted."

Ryan Avent echoes a similar concern:

Our infrastructure and energy policies need to be drastically overhauled. This is going to require careful forethought — and time. New initiatives in the stimulus might well complicate or undermine later attempts at reform. The simplest example is the highway versus transit debate; it's difficult to make headway on goals to reduce emissions and vehicle miles traveled while funding lots of new lane miles. Better to set up new guidelines for local, state, and regional planners, along with new funding streams and standards. But that can't be done in a month.

Actually, though, the spending on energy and infrastructure in the stimulus bill is fairly modest. This has earned it some criticism from various left-leaning quarters, but I guess my hope is that the reason there's so little infrastructure spending in the bill is precisely because Obama doesn't want to blindly fund a big range of "shovel ready" status quo building projects, but instead wants to think this stuff through and produce something better later in the year. We'll see.

Dear CIA, A.Q. Khan Has a Personal Website

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:40 PM EST

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Thanks to Paul Kerr at TotalWonkerr for catching this. Dr. A.Q. Khan, who once led the world's most expansive nuclear smuggling network, an archipelago of shady businessmen and shell companies that conspired to supply nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, among others, has been under house arrest in Pakistan since 2004. Virtually no one has been allowed access to Khan since Pervez Musharraf's regime, under extreme pressure from Washington, supposedly shut down his operation. US intelligence agencies have yet to debrief him, and the full picture of his proliferation network is not fully known. Despite Khan's demise, we can't even be certain that the smuggling network he assembled has gone completely dark.

In short, Khan has become one of the most guarded figures in the world, a secret wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma. Not a guy who would have a personal web page, right? Wrong. Khan has long been an inveterate self-promoter, and house arrest appears to have done nothing to dampen his unfailing enthusiasm for himself. His site (click here) is a classic work of hagiography, extolling his virtues and saying nothing of his decades-long adventure on the nuclear black market.