2012 - %3, January

Who Will Speak For the Trees?

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 12:35 PM EST

If you read this blog regularly, it's likely that you were a fan of The Lorax, Dr. Seuss' cherished 1971 classic. It's a story about a little orange guy devoted to protecting the Truffula trees, but it speaks more broadly to the threat that industry poses to the natural world. Now The Lorax has gone Hollywood, with a new film version from Universal Pictures due out on March 2. And it appears that fans of Seuss' environmental message aren't very excited about the release.

The trailer for the film prompted the students of Ted Wells' 4th grade class at the Park School in Brookline, Mass. to start a petition asking Universal to revive the tree-hugging themes of the book. Over at Change.org, they're requesting that the company at least add more educational materials to the film's website and promotional materials. Wells notes that his students thought the trailer made the movie look "more like an adventure and romance, like it had totally lost its message about helping the planet."

"Currently, the movie website, trailer, and story summary have no mention of helping our planet!" says the students' petition. "This is a missed opportunity. There are big problems in our natural world and we need more and more people helping out."

They have collected more than 50,000 signatures since they launched the petition in December. Here's the trailer, which makes me think the kids are right on:

While we're on the subject, The Onion was dead on about Hollywood's attempts to remake Seuss well before this latest misadventure.

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Karl Rove Chutzpah Watch

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 12:30 PM EST

I know nobody cares, but you really have to admire the chutzpah of a Karl Rove Super-PAC running an ad that attacks President Obama because median incomes are down since 2009. The problem isn't that the statement is literally untrue. According to the Census Bureau, the median income adjusted for inflation did indeed drop $368 between 2009 and 2010.

But guess what? Between 2001 and 2009, when Rove's boss was in the White House, median income fell $448. And that's over two entire terms that included six full years of economic expansion. But I guess when you bequeath your successor the biggest economic calamity since the Depression, you need to work pretty hard to rejuvenate your reputation.

Gingrich Woos the Latino Vote on Univision

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 11:25 AM EST
Newt Gingrich at CPAC Florida in 2011

Newt Gingrich slammed Mitt Romney's proposal for "self-deportation" as an "Obama-level fantasy" an interview with Univision's Jorge Ramos Wednesday morning. If the polls are right, more than a tenth of the GOP electorate in Tuesday's Florida primary will be of Hispanic origin.

"I think you have to live in a fantasy of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts to have an idea this far from reality," Gingrich said alluding to recent revelations from Romney's recently released tax returns. "For Romney to believe that someone's grandmother to be so cut off, that she's going to self-deport? This is an Obama-level fantasy…[Romney] has no concern for the humanity of people already here." According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than two thirds of the nearly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US have been here ten years or more, and nine million people are part of "mixed status" families where one or more family members is undocumented.

The concept behind "self-deportation," already at work in states like Arizona and Alabama, is that state governments can make life so miserable for unauthorized immigrants that they opt to leave the country. As explained by immigration restrictionist Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in 2005, this is done by turning  every minute transaction with the government into an opportunity to ascertain legal status, such as "getting a driver's license, registering an automobile, opening a bank account, applying for a car loan or a mortgage, getting a business or occupational license, and obtaining government services of any kind."

How Much Is That Triple Bypass in the Window?

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 11:12 AM EST

Matt Yglesias directs me this morning to a column by Peter Orszag promoting the cause of greater price transparency in the healthcare arena. As you may or may not be aware, it's almost impossible for consumers to find out the price of various procedures, which in turn makes it almost impossible to shop around. This reduces competitive pressure and keeps prices higher:

Several efforts are therefore under way to provide more transparency about health-care prices, with the goal of helping people become smarter shoppers. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services now collect and publish information on prices for prescription drugs (through the Medicare Plan Finder) and for common health services in various areas (through the Health Care Consumer Initiatives). And more than half of states now have publicly accessible websites offering health-care price information.

These efforts have not been overwhelmingly successful. California’s initiative over the past nine years to require hospitals to make certain price data available, for example, has done little to drive patients toward lower-price competitors or to narrow the price distribution, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service. A similar effort to increase price transparency in New Hampshire also had little effect. Simply posting prices online doesn’t seem to do all that much.

Well, of course these efforts haven't been overwhelmingly successful. As Atrios points out, this is partly because most big-ticket procedures aren't really all that discretionary. If you're having a heart attack, you get your bypass surgery from whichever hospital the ambulance takes you to.

But there's another point that's really a lot more important: most people don't buy their own healthcare. They have insurance that pays 90% of their costs. Or they have Medicare. Or they have Medicaid. Or they're too poor to afford healthcare at all. The number of people who literally pay for their healthcare needs on a cash basis and therefore have an incentive to shop around is small. Certainly far too small to have much impact on prices even if they are publicly posted.

I'm in favor of transparency anyway, partly on general principles and partly as an incentive to lower the insane prices that hospitals charge patients who don't have insurance (often 3x-4x the prices they charge insurance companies). And of course, conservatives want price transparency because it's a necessary precursor to their nirvana of HSAs and high-deductible insurance policies, in which consumers really would pay for a lot of healthcare services out of pocket. That's a wet dream that will never happen, but I'm willing to join with them in demanding price transparency anyway. After all, even if there aren't all that many consumers who shop around for healthcare services, why shouldn't they be able to compare prices?

But will it have much impact on the overall cost of healthcare in America? Not a chance.

What Obama Said About Energy in the State of the Union

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 10:43 AM EST

President Barack Obama had a lot to say about energy at Tuesday night's State of the Union address. The president mentioned the word 23 times in the course of the speech, but his emphasis was mostly on fossil-based energy. He focused the majority of his comments on expanding offshore and onshore oil and gas drilling.

Obama called for opening "more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources" to drilling. His only reference to the massive BP oil spill—which occurred just a few days after the last time he called for a major expansion of offshore drilling—was to argue that oil companies should be able to "contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago." There was no mention of preventing those spills in the first place, however.

The president also called for expanded development of on-shore natural gas, and said that those who extract gas on public lands will be required to disclose the types of chemicals they're using. And he called, once again, for a "clean energy standard"—a proposal that was included in last year's speech but didn't make much progress in Congress. "The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change," Obama said. "But there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean energy standard that creates a market for innovation. So far, you haven’t acted."

At least Obama supports recycling.

In the meantime, Obama said he is directing the Department of Interior to approve enough "clean energy" projects on public land to power 3 million homes. And he announced that the Navy plans to purchase enough clean energy to power a quarter of a million homes each year.

The energy portion of the speech is below the fold:

Forced Sterilization for Transgender People in Sweden

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:19 AM EST
Love Georg Elfvelin from an AllOut.org video at a protest against Sweden's law mandating trans people be sterilized

Little known fact about Sweden, that supposed bastion of liberal idealism: If a Swedish transgender person wants to legally update their gender on official ID papers, a 1972 law requires them to get both divorced and sterilized first.

Sweden is considered extremely gay-friendly, with one of the highest rates of popular support for same-sex marriage, and more than half the population supports gay adoption. Arguing that the current law is both unpopular and abusive, the country's moderate and liberal parties want to see it repealed. In response, the small but powerful Christian Democrat party formed a coalition with other right-of-center parties to join in upholding the requirement for sterilization. End result: a proposal for new legislation that allows trans—a preferred term for many people who undergo gender reassignment—to be married but continues to force them to be sterilized.

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Mitt Romney's Florida Foreclosure Flip-Flop

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Romney and Gingrich dueling at Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa

With his once-secure grip on the GOP presidential nomination loosening, Mitt Romney has been hitting Newt Gingrich hard this week in Florida. The former Massachusetts governor's plan: Make the mortgage meltdown—and Gingrich's paid work for the mortgage insurer Freddie Mac—a huge issue in this state, one of the worst-hit by foreclosures. Romney opened this offensive Monday morning in Tampa at a roundtable on the flagging Florida housing market; shortly after, his team released an attack ad alleging that Newt "cashed in" on foreclosures.

But Romney is also embracing the one person in Florida who has likely done more than anyone else to shaft troubled homeowners and help foreclosure mills stay in business: state Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Your Daily Newt: On Speed Limits and the Principles of Freedom

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Newt Gingrich laughs at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

According to Newt Gingrich, two things inspired Newt Gingrich to become a revolutionary. The first was his experience with a youth literacy program called Earning by Learning, which taught him that educational outcomes could be improved if we started offering students cash incentives (Earning by Learning also offered a lot of money to Gingrich's former aide and biographer Mel Steely). The second, he told an audience at DC's Mayflower Hotel in 1995, was speed limit signs:

As you know in Germany, on the autobahn, there's no speed limit, you can go literally any speed you want to. Many Americans rent a car, they're doing 100, a Mercedes goes by at 120, they pull over to the side of the road and cry. They never fully recover from the experience.  If tomorrow morning the Bundestag adopted a 100 kilometer or 62 mile-per-hour speed limit, virtually every German would obey it the next day. And the next election they would massacre the current generation of politicians and they would elect the No Speed Limit Party.

Now I'm always cautious about this because I don't want to offend anybody in the audience, but my understanding is that the American cultural response to the challenge of speed limits is substantially different from the German cultural response: In most of America, the speed limit is the benchmark of opportunity...I want to make a point here. This to me was the moment, one of the two moments I became a revolutionary."

After a brief digression into a discussion of disciplinary pratices within the 18th-century British army, Gingrich returned to signage: "A country in which virtually every citizen drives over the speed limit is impossible to lead by bureaucratic regulation," he said. "By definition, this is why the health plan last year was so crazy. By definition, a nation driven by incentives will wake up in the morning and say 'How do I get around the rule? What can my lawyer find for me? Is there a consultant who knows the loopholes?'" Given that Gingrich rose to power in the GOP by exploiting loopholes in the tax code to use charities for political ends, we suppose he probably does have point.

I Created Elmo, and Here's Proof!

| Wed Jan. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Ignore the blue and green paint. I was five. Sheesh.Ignore the blue and green paint.  I was five.  Sheesh!You want proof? Ta-daaa.

My nine-year-old son pulled a poster tube out from behind his bed the other day. My mom had sent it a while back, but I never looked inside.

Turns out it contained this painting, which I did in July 1970, at age five, before Elmo existed.

I hereby claim 17 percent of gross proceeds from all Elmo licensing and merchandising, retroactively and hereafter.

Hello, 1 percent!

And now, back to substantive journalism

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 25, 2012

Wed Jan. 25, 2012 5:57 AM EST

Master Sgt. Chris Skierski sweeps the flightline for foreign objects and debris on January 15, 2012, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Skierski is an F-16C Fighting Falcon engine mechanic assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. (US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht)