2009 - %3, April

Really, First Read?

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 9:47 AM EDT

Yesterday, I noted how strange it was that MSNBC's First Read leavened their usual breathless coverage of polling and public opinion with the sentence, "But [Obama's] presidency won't be judged by what happened on this trip; rather, it will be judged on what happens afterward." Ordinarily, First Read would read deep into polls and proclaim a "public image problem" or a "public image triumph" (or some such) for some political actor. But yesterday the writers seemed to acknowledge that basing one's political journalism on day-to-day polling was silly; long-term events, they acknowledged, have far more to do with our leaders' successes and failures. Had First Read learned an important lesson about the way journalists do our work?

Nope. Here's the gang today:

[Republicans] have maintained (for the most part) a unified opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. All Republicans, save for three moderate GOP senators, voted against Obama's stimulus. And every single Republican voted against the Democratic budget. But looking at recent polls, we've got to ask: Where has this gotten the GOP so far? The recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Republican Party's favorability rating at an all-time low, matching the result from last month's NBC/WSJ poll.

Guys, come on. If Obama will be judged not based on what he does now but on the long-term results of very major decisions, as you said yesterday, doesn't the same standard apply to the congressional opposition?

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Charts Charts Charts

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 1:22 AM EDT

CFR's Paul Swartz has a whole passel of horrifically grim charts for you today.  Bottom line: our current recession is the worst since World War II by practically every measure.  And on some measures, it's even worse than that.  U.S. trade, for example, is now collapsing at nearly Great Depression velocity.  Eichengreen and O'Rourke concur.  The only good news is that we're responding to events better than our ancestors did.  We hope.

Navy: No Cuts Until 2040

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 9:41 PM EDT

The New Republic asked a few defense experts who won and who lost in the Pentagon procurement reshuffling announced yesterday.  Here's one answer:

NAME: Andrew Krepinevich

POSITION: President of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

WHO WON: The Navy, which "essentially emerges unscathed. I talked to Gates this morning. According to him, they'll get to keep their eleven carriers through 2040, and [the budget] left the proposed increase in submarine production intact."

WHO LOST: The Air Force, because of the slashed F-22 program. "You look across the board, and you say, ‘The Air Force had a pretty tough day.'" Also, the Army, which was "already in a state of disrepair after the cancellations of the Crusader Artillery System and Comanche helicopter" over the past decade. Under the new budget plan, the Army will see huge cutbacks to FCS (Future Combat Systems), which is "the crown jewel of the Army's modernization program."

The Navy's reduction from 11 carriers to 10 won't happen until 2040?  Since their only other "loss" was the DDG-1000 destroyer, which they wanted to cancel anyway, I guess they really did come through this whole thing pretty unscathed.  The other services must be pretty hosed off about this.

Hop The Fence For Healthcare

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 8:12 PM EDT

The largest randomized health policy study ever conducted finds a health care program that's been astonishing effective in reducing crippling health care costs among poorer households.

Did I mention this health care program is in México? At the rate things are going we're going to be climbing over the border fence and headed south for what we can't get here.

A paper in the current Lancet scientifically establishes that Seguro Popular, established in 2003, achieved its main goal to reduce health care costs.

"The success of Seguro Popular in reducing catastrophic health expenditures is remarkable, not least because governmental money spent on the poor in many countries rarely reaches the intended recipients," said Gary King of Harvard University, lead author on the study.

The study included 500,000 people and monitored health outcomes and expenditures in 118,569 households in 174 communities over 10 months. Half the communities received treatment. That means families in those villages were encouraged to enroll in Seguro Popular. They had their health facilities built or upgraded, with medical personnel, drugs and other supplies provided. The other half didn't get squat.

The outcome of the study is interesting enough. But its innovative research designs and statistical methods vastly increased what can be learned from an evaluation while saving a short ton of money making the evaluation.

The design includes failsafe components that preserve the experimental randomization even if politics or other problems intervene, including those that have ruined most previous large scale public policy evaluations.

Aren't we doing that right now in the US? Don't we need to screen politics out of the equation? Any researchers from this study willing to look at our own sick health care system?
 

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Near At Hand?

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 6:34 PM EDT

Anybody 'sides me watching Dollhouse?

Well, then you know that there's a super secret 'service' whereby the Bill-Gates rich can buy "dolls," people who've done something they can't live with (except for Sierra. Long story.) and who've agreed to have other personas implanted over their own. Then, the "dolls" go out as midwives, high priced whores, etc. to fulfill rich folks' fantasies, after which they're "wiped."

Turns out that technology isn't so far off. Again, the Times:

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.
Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge, or motor skills.
The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.
So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
If this molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” said Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, which demonstrated its effect on memory. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning."

And...for all sorts of other stuff.

Pap Smears Begone!

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 6:26 PM EDT

What? "Spread em and grin" might be hitting the bricks? Yep, according to the Times:

A new DNA test for the virus that causes cervical cancer does so much better than current methods that some gynecologists hope it will eventually replace the Pap smear in wealthy countries and cruder tests in poor ones.
Not only could the new test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, save lives; scientists say that women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years, depending on which expert is asked.
Their optimism is based on an eight-year study of 130,000 women in India financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. It is the first to show that a single screening with the DNA test beats all other methods at preventing advanced cancer and death.
'The study is another nail in the coffin for Pap smears, which will soon be of mainly historical interest,' said Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, a professor of gynecology at Stanford medical school who has tested screening techniques in Africa and Asia and was not involved in the study.
But whether the new test is adopted will depend on many factors, including hesitation by gynecologists to abandon Pap smears, which have been remarkably effective. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

Downside: The insurance industry will no doubt use those DNA results, if this pans out, to take our premiums for years—then deny us a payout based on our genetic profiles. But still...no more Pap smears? Yippee!

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First Grandma's Essence Interview

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 5:40 PM EDT

Best Nana ever? That would be Michelle's mama, Marian Robinson.

First Nana and First Lady grace this month's Essence and 'Big Mama' just gets cooler and cooler. There's just too much good stuff to cut and paste; check the link for the full story. My fave? The First Grandma plans to evacuate the WH with a quickness, once the kiddies are all settled. Why? "I love those people, but I love my own house. The White House reminds me of a museum and it's like, how do you sleep in a museum?"

"Those people"? Rock on, Nana. She does yoga. She thinks her own daughter is too strict. She's ready to get back to her own life after tending to her grandkids while her 'other kids' do their own thing, White House be damned.

I say: let's bring Nana Robinson to Burning Man this year!

Dover and the Press

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 5:22 PM EDT

For the past 18 years the press has been banned from attending the arrival ceremonies of deceased soldiers at Dover Air Force Base.  Supposedly this was to protect the privacy of the families, despite the fact that families weren't complaining at the time the policy was changed during the Gulf War1.  But now that the ceremonies are open once again, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk has a different concern:

Last night’s ceremony was a landmark occasion. But now that the ceremonies are likely to be open so often, there’s little guarantee that the press will regularly come out in such force.

“Now that the families are giving their consent, will the media care?” asks Melnyk, who worries that families who consent to coverage, but see no journalists at their loved one’s arrival, may get the impression that the nation does not appreciate their loss. “It ain’t going to be news in a month.”

Yeesh.  It's disrespectful when the press shows up and it's disrespectful when they don't.  Sometimes you just can't win.

1More likely reason: Following the invasion of Panama in 1989, George Bush Sr. got pissed off when pictures of coffins arriving at Dover were inadvertently broadcast live on a split screen while he was laughing with reporters at a press conference. Two years later, he made sure that wouldn't happen again.

The FDA and Big Pharma: Watchdog or Lapdog?

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote about the latest Big Pharma scandal to crawl out from under a rock. It shows, once again, the extent to which many doctors—in this case, psychiatrists—are compromised by their relationships with the drug companies, and the damage these conflicts of interest can do to patients. The same is true of the Food and Drug Administration—and in a way, that’s even worse, since the FDA is supposed to be our watchdog, and has instead too often become Big Pharma’s lapdog.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Marcia Angell offers a seven-point agenda to “restore the FDA to its purpose, which is to protect the public from unsafe food, drugs, and devices, not to accommodate the industries it regulates.” She sees the appointment of industry critic Joshua Sharfstein as deputy FDA commissioner as a promising sign—but only a beginning.

Angell, who teaches social medicine at Harvard Medical School and wrote a sharp book on how Big Pharma operates, suggests a series of changes to the system under which drugs are developed, approved, and marketed. Personally, I’d like to see something slightly more dramatic—maybe along the lines of replacing the lab animals used to test new drugs with pharmaceutical company executives. But as a realistic starting place for public policymaking in this area, Angell’s agenda is as sound as anything I’ve seen. 

Chart of the Day - 4.7.2009

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 3:55 PM EDT

Via Paul Krugman, this comes from a recent paper by Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef.  Basically, they created a metric of financial regulation and graphed it against the relative pay of people in the finance industry.  Guess what?  When the market is lightly regulated, pay skyrockets!

Now, sure, a lot of other stuff was going on during this period too, so take this with a grain of salt.  But still: the amount of money being shoveled into the FIRE sector over the past 30 years has been pretty phenomenal, and it's hardly a stretch to think that that's pretty tightly correlated with loose regulation, massive leverage, and opaque rocket science derivatives.

What's more, as Krugman points out, the amount of money going into finance has been so stratospheric lately that it actually has a significant impact on overall income inequality.  It's only a part of the story, but it's still a part.  One of the reasons there's been less money for the middle class, thus spurring ever greater indebtedness in order to keep living standards on the rise, is because our financial titans kept so much of it for themselves.  It's time for that to stop.  Finance should be the servant of industry, not its master.