2009 - %3, October

Cold War Nukes Testing Brings Cancer To Baby Boomers

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 4:00 PM EDT

In case you missed it, Politics Daily published a disturbing piece by Walter Shapiro about a new study showing that millions of baby boomers face a greater risk of cancer thanks to Cold War-era nuclear testing.

Shapiro's piece centers on the startling findings of Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist who analyzed baby teeth from children born in the St. Louis area of Missouri between 1959 and 1961. He found that subjects who had twice the normal amount of Strontium-90 in their infant teeth had since died of cancer. His detective work eventually traced the Strontium-90 to nuclear test sites hundreds of miles away.

Mangano demonstrated how detonations in the Nevadan desert between 1951 and 1962 propelled radioactive chemicals into the atmosphere, which were then blown all over the country by the wind and returned to the ground by precipitation—infiltrating the water supply, grazing areas for cows, as well as orchards, farms and other sources of food. (Mangano believes the St. Louis children were most likely affected by contaminated cow milk—bottle feeding was in vogue at the time.) Mangano's explosive findings didn't receive the reaction you might expect: Shapiro was the only reporter who showed up at the press conference. You can read the entire study here.

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Pondering the Future of StuyTown

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 3:30 PM EDT

In a decision that could reverberate throughout New York's sprawling rental market, a judge ruled today that the owner of NYC's enormous Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village apartment complexes will have to pay back some $200 million to tenants.

In our July/August issue, Adam Matthews reported on a trend known as "predatory equity," wherein private equity partnerships would buy undervalued housing developments, take out big loans against their value—including a good chunk of change for themselves—and then fix and flip the properties. In doing so, the partnerships would bleed the equity out of affordable developments and put them at risk of foreclosure.

In that case, a partnership led by businessman Larry Gluck had purchased and then refinanced Harlem's Riverton Houses, intending to remodel units with pretty kitchen and bath fixtures and then jack up rents on rent-stabilized tenants. But when the market tanked, Riverton ended up mired in debt. Dina Levy, a tenant organizer with New York City's Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, told Matthews that such deals had left roughly 70,000 affordable units overleveraged.

The case reported by the Times this week involved a partnership comprised of BlackRock and Tishman Speyer Properties, which purchased the property in 2006. Metropolitan Life, the former owner, was also named. The new owners took a big hit in the downturn; more than half of their development's $5.4 million sticker price has evaporated into thin air. And now it appears they'll have to pay back rent to boot.

Rent control in New York is a tricky thing; according to the Times:

Under state law, landlords can deregulate an apartment when the rent for a vacant unit reaches $2,000 or more per month, or the rent is above $2,000 and a tenant’s household income is above $175,000 for two consecutive years.

Still, it's estimated that the decision could affect some 80,000 apartments in New York City. 

 

Mary Poppins, Lab Rat

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 2:26 PM EDT

A spoonful of sugar it isn't, but a biomedical breakthrough, urged on by none other than  74-year-old singer and actress Julie Andrews (aka Mary Poppins) may hold hope for thousands who've lost use of their vocal cords. 

Yes, science has developed yet another synthetic miracle to join titanium hips, pace-makers, and prosthetic robot hands. This time, it's a gel form of polyethylene glycol—a key ingredient in skin creams and lubricants. Scientists believe the gel can mimic the larynx's flaps of tissue which produce the human voice. They plan to start testing the gel on humans in two years.

Vocal cords, one might not be too surprised to learn, are alarmingly susceptible to damage. I still remember my distress when Chino Moreno (frontman for the Deftones) lost his primal scream to a vocal-cord injury and started putting out albums full of eerie art-noise instead.

Poor Julie Andrews isn't putting out albums of notice, but she struggles to hold a note after a 1997 surgery to remove non-cancerous growths on her larynx left extensive scarring. Scientists at MIT and Harvard, working with the singer, hope the gel can restore her famous five-octave range.

Ride350 VIDEO: Asio Otus

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

Today we visited Mendocino Middle School at the invitation of "the coolest teacher," Jeremiah Siem. Our team talked to the kids about how climate change could affect their community. Concerned, attentive, and wicked smart, the kids threw an assortment of great questions our way—and came up with some awesome ideas of what they could do to help make a positive difference in their community, like getting mom to ride her bike instead of taking the car, organizing a beach clean-up, or turning off the lights when they leave the room (blowing up factories was ruled out by boos).

This grand conversation was kicked off by a phenomenal demonstration of the asio otus bird call—which spread smiles and laughter throughout the packed lunchroom.

 

 

Chamber Says Misleading Membership Claims "Hardly Our Fault." Really?

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

In a story today in E&E News, a respected environmental news service that is often reprinted in the New York Times, the US Chamber of Commerce remained on the defensive about its claim to represent "3 million" members. E&E reported (sub req'd) the Chamber's recent assertion that it has always used two membership numbers: its 300,000 direct members and its 3 million "federation members" (a number that includes members of local chambers who have no direct ties to the national group). "This often does get reported in the press as 3 million members without qualification," Chamber blogger Brad Peck told E&E. "That is hardly our fault."

But Peck's statement appears to be contradicted by a recent quote from the Chamber's spokesman. "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership," spokesman Eric Wholschlegel told the New York Times last month in a story about the utility PG&E's departure from the Chamber over its climate policy. The Chamber also does not cite the smaller membership number on its website or many (if not all) of its press releases. And its written materials typically do not explain the meaning of the "3 million" number, failing to use the term "federation members," let alone clarify what it means.

In the E&E piece, the Chamber also lashed out at my reporting of the issue, saying that it "has crossed into advocacy and should be treated as such." E&E published its piece a day after I sent an open letter to one of its reporters questioning his continued citation of the Chamber's "3 million members." If advocacy is the same thing as requesting that other media outlets report the facts,  then I am guilty as charged. Or maybe Peck considers the choice of which number to use an ideological issue. If that's the case, then E&E and the Associated Press are to the right of the Wall Street Journal, which reports the Chamber's membership as 300,000.

UPDATE: Today, James Surowiecki of the New Yorker strongly sided with my assertion that the correct membership number is around 300,000.

Mystery Senator Blocks Obama Pick to Head Key Mining Office

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

When President Obama nominated Joseph Pizarchik to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, critics blasted the choice, charging that Pizarchik has a history of favoring coal industry interests over the well-being of local residents. Still, it appeared Pizarchik would sail to confirmation this week—until an unknown senator placed a hold on his appointment. Here's why the mystery senator might be worried that Pizarchik is the wrong man for the job.

Pizarchik has served as the director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mining and Reclamation since 2002. The office, a division of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, oversees mining permits and the enforcement of environmental rules related to mining and waste disposal. And residents of Pennsylvania mining areas are so unhappy with his performance that they're organizing to oppose the nomination. Under Pizarchik's watch, the bureau developed new policies for the "beneficial use" of coal ash, including allowing it to be dumped in old surface mining sites—meaning, essentially, that power plant waste could be left in unlined pits around the state.

 

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Bonus Chart of the Day

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 1:32 PM EDT

This is a cool chart.   Using a fairly slick technique, Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty have come up with a way of comparing state parties on a common ideological scale.  Andrew Gelman explains:

The estimates are based on state legislative voting, which might make you wonder how you could possibly compare legislators in one state with those in another. The trick is that some state representatives (for example, Barack Obama) also end up in Congress. There are enough of these overlap cases that you can put legislators from all 50 states on a common scale.

It's not clear how the states are ranked, but if you look hard enough you'll see that California is at the bottom.  This is appropriate.  In fact, the chart goes a long way toward explaining why the Golden State sucks so bad these days: we have both the most liberal Democratic Party and the most conservative Republican Party.  The state GOP, in particular, is way more conservative than any of its peers, beating out even Texas and Oklahoma by a sizable margin.

The error bars are pretty big here, so take all of this with a grain of salt.  Still, it demonstrates pretty vividly that California really is two states.  Not North/South, but Coastal/Inland.  They're practically different countries.

The French Do It Better for Half the Price

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

Anyone trying to follow the latest battles in the health care debate will by now find their heads swimming with claims and counter claims, unintelligble lingo, political doubletalk, and mind boggling statistics. It all serves to distract us from the simplest way to assess various potential health care systems, which is by looking at  countries that already have them.

But here, too, politics enters the equation. Conservatives like to produce dire warnings based on the British NHS, which does have a fair amount of rationing. (They don’t mention that 73 percent of Brits nonetheless said they had confidence in their health care system, as compared with 56 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll last year.) These same conservatives avoid looking at the very best national health systems, which manage to deliver superior care at dramatically lower cost.

Here’s a very simple run down on the French health care system, often thought to be the best of them all. Much of this information comes from an interview published recently in the New York Times with Victor G. Rodwin, a professor of health policy and management at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and an expert on international health care systems.

1. There is no explicit health care rationing in the French system, and access to care is generally excellent. The quality of health care provided in France was ranked first by the World Health Organization and in other recent studies.

2.  The model is something very close to a Medicare-for-All system–only better. As Rodwin describes it: “It’s not government run but government financed. Like Medicare and Social Security, it is funded by compulsory payroll taxes with some income tax contributions. But doctors work predominantly in private, office-based, fee-for-service practices, and there is a mix of public and private hospitals. The main difference from Medicare is that the entire resident population is covered and the benefit package is more generous.”

3. France  has preserved a role for insurance, although it is nonprofit and heavily regulated. The French buy supplemental insurance, like the Medigap policies bought by many Medicare enrollees, to cover copays and additional services–though they don’t need it for much.

4. The French drive a hard bargain with drug companies, so they pay a lot less for their drugs than we do. As summarized in a report prepared for Democrats on the House Oversight Committee in 2001: “The French pricing system allows pharmaceutical companies to sell their products at any price. However, if these companies want the national health care system to reimburse patients for the cost of the drug, the companies must agree to a lower, negotiated price. These negotiated prices and reimbursement rates paid by the healthcare system are based on the therapeutic value of the drug and the price of the drug in other countries. The French pricing system results in brand name drug prices that are an average of 45% lower than prices inhe United States.” A more recent study put the figure at 48 percent lower.

5. The French system is one of the more expensive in Europe and, as the Wall Street Journal takes pleasure in reporting, there is controversy about rising costs. Yet according to OECD data from 2007, the per capita cost is still half that of the U.S. system, and the percent of GDP spent on health care is about 30 percent lower--11 percent as compared with our 16 percent. This cost difference makes the various cost-cutting schemes proposed by Congressional Democrats look like chump change.

If you’re not convinced yet, think about this: Doctors in France still make house calls.

Fiore Cartoon: Goldman Sachs, Balloon Bank!

Thu Oct. 22, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

   Last week, America was riveted by the story of balloon boy. But what about the story of Goldman Sachs, the balloon bank, and the mysteriously missing real economy?

   Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on the high-flying exploits of the megabank below:

Stopping the Trials

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 12:58 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, the Washington Independent has a story by Daphne Eviatar about attempts to bring five of the 9/11 conspirators to trial in federal court.  Naturally, there's opposition:

The administration has promised to make its final decision on where to try the 9/11 suspects by Nov. 16. Fearing that the administration is inching toward bringing them to New York City or the Washington, D.C., area, opponents of trying high-level terrorists in U.S. federal courts are stepping up their efforts to keep the five men out of the United States for any purpose. On Oct. 9, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he’d attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the Obama administration from spending money on prosecuting and trying these five alleged terrorists in U.S. civilian federal courts.

Hmmm.  Would this even be constitutional?  Congress can do a lot through its appropriations power, but can it use that power to deny someone a trial in federal court?  Any lawyer types care to chime in on this?