2009 - %3, April

Employee-Driven Government Reform: A Good Idea?

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

Over the weekend, Barack Obama spoke about various ideas for government reform that his administration will be trying out. One in particular struck me as interesting. Here's Obama:

Third, we'll look for ideas from the bottom up. After all, Americans across the country know that the best ideas often come from workers – not just management. That's why we’ll establish a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better. We’ll put the suggestions that work into practice. And later this year, I will meet with those who come up with the best ideas to hear firsthand about how they would make your government more efficient and effective.

That's pretty neat, though without routing these ideas from deep within the bureaucracy directly to the Oval Office, this could very easily turn out to be an empty PR gambit. Presumably a political appointee at the top of a federal agency can squash the ideas he or she doesn't want to see implemented.

My favorite part of this, though, is the flood of suggestions about saving money that are likely going to be little more than, "You should fire Jim, the guy in the cubicle next to me who cuts his toenails in the office."

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Withdrawing from Iraq

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 11:48 AM EDT

The New York Times reports that the June 30 deadline to remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities may get watered down a bit:

The United States and Iraq will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials. Some parts of Baghdad also will still have combat troops.

....The spokesman for the Iraqi military, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, who is also the secretary to the committee’s Iraqi contingent, said also that a decision on Mosul would be made at Monday’s meeting, which he called “critical.”

“I personally think even in Mosul there will be no American forces in the city, but that’s a decision for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi prime minister,” General Askari said.

General [David] Perkins also expressed specific concerns about Mosul, noting how important the city is to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

“For Al Qaeda to win, they have to take Baghdad. To survive they have to hold on to Mosul,” he said. “Mosul is sort of their last area where they have some maybe at least passive support.”

I don't really feel like panicking at the moment about whether this is the camel's nose that keeps us in Iraq forever, but June 30 sure seems like the perfect opportunity to stop screwing around and make it clear that we're going to do what we said we were going to do.  At every step of this process, there are going to be enormous forces pushing in the direction of staying in Iraq for just a little bit longer, or in just a few more places, or with just a few more missions, and if we start giving in to them it's going to be hard to stop.  We've got a plan and a schedule.  Let's stick with it.

 

Swine Flu: Bringing Home the Bacon

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 10:08 AM EDT

As the world gears up once again for a flu pandemic that may or may not arrive (it actually seems possible this time), we might want to remember some of the lessons of the last flu scare. One of these is that there are winners as well as losers in every high-profile outbreak of infectious disease. First and foremost among them, of course, is Big Pharma, which can always be counted on to have its hand out wherever human misery presents an opportunity to rake in some cash.

In 2005, I reported on the bird flu scare for the Village Voice in a piece called “Capitalizing on the Flu.” We can realistically hope that our current federal government will improve upon the bungled effort made by the Bush Administration to prepare for the onslaught of avian flu—which fortunately didn’t materialize. But certain aspects of the crisis are likely to be repeated, and profiteers will surely waste no time in gathering at the trough.

Then, as now, one of the two effective antidotes was a drug called Tamiflu. But this silver bullet came with side effects, as well as a high price tag. As I reported in 2005:

Miscellaneous Thoughts

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 1:02 AM EDT

I'm back!  The Georgia coast is beautiful.  Lotsa bugs, though.

The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is powered by Macintoshes.  If it weren't for us liberals, Apple probably would have been in Chapter 11 years ago.

I think the seat pitch in Delta's airplanes is about three inches.  Or so.

John Thain is pissed.  The Wall Street Journal has the story.  I'm looking forward to many more public feuds like this as Wall Street continues to melt down.

Normal blogging will resume Monday.

 

Crybabies of Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 3:55 PM EDT

The new issue of New York Magazine features a cover story called “The Wail of the 1%.” The piece describes what a bummer it is for rich Wall Street execs to have to put up with all the populist rage that’s being levied against them–just because they helped bring down the world economy, and got paid seven-figure salaries while doing so. It’s especially difficult for the poor bankers and brokers to endure all these bad vibes while they’re having to tighten their own hand-tooled Italian leather belts due to lost jobs and lost bonuses.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this sort of peevish lament from the rich–I’ve written about it before myself. But the article’s author, Gabriel Sherman, gets some truly shameless quotes out of these guys (most of whom refused to use their names). A few examples:

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

Plan B vs. the Knuckle-Draggers

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 3:40 PM EDT

Plan B will soon be available OTC to girls as young as 17. Good. Sad. But good.

Needless to say, the knuckle-draggers are leaving skid marks all over the place. You gotta love this title on "The Other McCain" blog: "What next? Over-the-counter roofies?"

Plan B—the drug that allows guys to breathe a sigh of relief the morning after using some chick for selfish pleasure—will now be available to 17-year-olds without a prescription.
Who cares that she's not even old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes legally? Get her drunk on wine coolers, get what you want, then the next morning, take her to CVS to get Plan B and make sure there's no chance the slut will show up in a few months talking child support payments and DNA tests.
So guys, if you screw a 17-year-old and "forget" to use a condom, remember: Nothing says "thanks a lot, you cheap whore" like the gift of Plan B!

The only thing worse than the politburo seeking to make the rest of us do as we're told is when they pretend to give a damn about women. Luckily, they don't fake it well at all.

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Mommies Praised, But Not Respected, For Staying Home With Their Kids

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 3:02 PM EDT

Ah, the family values crowd.

One proud stay-at-home mom of three had a rude awakening yesterday when she tried to keep her daughter home with her for Take Your Child To Work Day.

[Sandra] Thompson says she considers hers a professional job and when she planned for bring your child to work day, she thought that as a stay at home mom it would be good for her kids to see what she does all day.
"I approached the teacher and asked her if it would be ok for Adriane to spend a day and see what my job is all about. They came back and said that my job is not considered a professional job."
Sandra took her concerns to the Superintendent of Madison County Schools, Dr. Terry Davis. 
"He told me how much he admires my job, how important my job is, that his own wife stays home with their children."
But still he refused to allow it.

It would have counted as an unexcused absence.

Don't you just hate it when the truth slips out?

Looks like the Thompson kids could write their own book: Everything I Know About Misogyny I Learned On Take Your Child To Work Day. Maybe Mrs. Davis would like to contribute an essay.

The Week in Torture

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 2:58 PM EDT

No, Obama doesn't plan to prosecute the CIA agents who tortured prisoners during the Bush era. But will he taze the policymakers? Note to Obama: Here's a torture chain of command cheat sheet. Looks like you'll need it.

Meanwhile, the right continues to preach moral absolutism on everything except the "We're America, We Don't Fucking Torture" front; a Playboy writer gets waterboarded for kicks; and Dick Cheney still just loooooves the torture talk. Maybe Cheney tapes will make it onto the next torture playlist; in the meantime, does Jonathan Mann have to credit John Yoo after setting his torture memos to music?

Alas, we can't tell you which soldier gave us this secret footage inside the Abu Ghraib cellblocks. But you should watch it anyway for the sheer spooky matter-of-factness. Those cells are wicked small! And narrated!

Hey, did you know our special torture investigation is up for a National Magazine Award? See why: Listen to our exclusive torture playlist and re-read the secrets of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the war on terror.

Scamming (and Spamming) the Geezer

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 2:42 PM EDT

An article in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader this week reported on the latest scam directed against older Americans–-this one with a recession-era twist. According to the paper:

State officials are warning senior citizens and those who collect government pensions to be wary of phone calls asking for personal information in order to get one-time stimulus money.

Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those who collect Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans Affairs and Railroad Retirement Board will receive a one-time payment of $250 added to their retirement checks. The money — set to be distributed by late May — will be automatically added to a pensioner’s account. No additional information will be needed to get the one-time money.

AARP’s “Scam Alert” was already issuing warnings a month ago about stimulus-related cons against old folks, which it dubbed “stimu-lies.” These include “websites, e-mails and online advertisements promising an inside track to get your piece of that $787 billion pie—via government grants”:

Some touted smiling people holding five-figure U.S. Treasury checks, with compelling testimonials of financial struggles … that ended after “I got my stimulus check in the mail in less than seven days.” Others had prominent photos of President Obama to suggest their legitimacy. Less obvious is their real purpose: to steal your money or grab personal information to conduct identity theft.

How come so many of these grifter schemes seem to target old folks? The FBI devotes a whole section of its web site to the subject, titled ”Fraud Target: Senior Citizens.” It offers a number of explanations, including the following:

Individuals who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Two very important and positive personality traits, except when it comes to dealing with a con-man. The con-man will exploit these traits knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the phone.

Friday Cocktail: The Firewall: Afghan’s 1st Line of Defense; New Orleans Indefensible; Urgent Threats Fund Powers Up

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

As Frank Zappa said: You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Round 1: Best Earth Day event of the week? Afghanistan announced the establishment of its first national park. Band-e-Amir—Afghanistan's Grand Canyon—protects 230 square miles of arid landscape punctuated by deep blue lakes. It’s in the heart of a relatively stable part of the country that’s been eyed for protection since the 1960s.

Phil McKenna of New Scientist’s Short Sharp Science blog wondered how you go about getting a park put together in the middle of a war. He asked Peter Zahler of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who’s long been at work in Afghanistan trying to protect snow leopards. WCS helped plan the US government-backed park and will work locally to train park rangers and help villagers benefit from an increase in tourism to the region. Someday. Locals around Band-e-Amir currently farm and graze in unsustainable ways. A local economy tied to protecting the region's natural resources will be better. 

For the skeptics: Arguably the most significant single piece of international environmental lawmaking of the 20th century—the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916—was signed in the bloody midst of World War I. So, cheers, Band-e-Amir. Here’s to the visionaries.

Round 2: No matter how large or sturdy, levees and floodwalls surrounding New Orleans can’t provide absolute protection from extreme hurricanes or storm surges. This according to a new report by the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council.  So what should be done? The report suggests voluntary relocation of people and neighborhoods from vulnerable areas. If that fails, raise the first floors of buildings to at least the 100-year flood level. 

The investigators point out that levees and floodwalls only reduce risk from hurricanes and storm surges, they don’t eliminate it. The hurricane defense system in place in New Orleans promoted a false sense of security that people were absolutely safe. Seems metaphorical to me. We're in a world of weak levees.

Round 3: Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant helped eradicate smallpox through his work as head of Google.org. Now he’s leaving that job to lead the Urgent Threats Fund created by Jeffrey Skoll, founder of eBay. Declan Butler of Nature News interviewed Brilliant who described how he and Skoll brainstormed about the five threats facing humanity and the planet: climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and conflict in the Middle East.

Skoll said these problems need fresh money, the community of social entrepreneurs and organizations already working on them, media campaigns “the likes of which nobody has ever seen,” and the expertise of Hollywood. (Huh?) The Urgent Threats Funds is planning to combat, mitigate, and prevent those five threats. They’re starting with $100 million. Maybe an Urgent Threats beer brand—all proceeds go to the fund?