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Fiore Cartoon: U.S., #1 in Prisoners!

Thu Aug. 6, 2009 1:00 PM EDT

The equation for our prison reform system looks something like this:

Tough on crime=good people. Reform seekers=sissies!

Watch satirist Mark Fiore take on the American poky system below:

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Restless Pharmaceutical Companies

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Megan McArdle asks:

Why is restless leg syndrome always the poster child for people who hate pharma advertising?  Both my fiance and I clearly have it, and you know what?  It's really not very much fun not being able to sleep, nor are the cramp-like sensations that accompany the uncontrollable urge to kick your legs.

I've wondered about this too.  Is it just because it's kind of funny sounding?  I don't have it myself, but I have a friend with RLS and he tells me he can barely sleep in the same bed with his wife when it's acting up because it's so violent.

Actually, though, the answer doesn't seem to have much to do with whether RLS really exists.  It's more about whether pharmaceutical companies are vastly overestimating its incidence in order to sell more drugs.  In Britain, for example, GlaxoSmithKline got in trouble for promoting an off-label use of one of their products for RLS:

Dr Des Spence, the Glasgow GP who raised the complaint, said the case was an example of the way pharmaceutical companies used patient groups to promote a new condition, and then supplied drugs to treat it.

“The Ekbom Support Group was hijacked by GSK to promote restless legs syndrome and the GSK drug ropinirole,” he said. “I am not saying some people do not experience pain and restless legs but claims on the website that it is a widespread and serious condition are disproportionate.”

The Ekbom Support Group says 5% of the population suffer from the condition. Doctors say fewer than 3% experience symptoms on a regular basis and, of them, only a minority require any treatment.

This is the great gray area of pharmaceutical advertising, of course.  On the one hand, letting people know about a condition and a possible new way to treat it is perfectly fine.  On the other hand, we're all natural hypochondriacs, and it's all too easy to convince millions of people whose legs twitch a bit that they have a serious disease.  In fact, most of them just have legs that twitch a bit.

Anyway, the lesson here seems to be (a) RLS is real but (b) you probably don't have it.  What the policy response to this should be I'm less sure of.

Stimulus "Absolutely" Working

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

On Thursday morning, Christina Romer, the chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, painted a rosy picture of how February's "Recovery Act" is working. Calling fiscal stimulus "a well-tested antibiotic, not some newfangled gene therapy," Romer rattled off statistics: As of June, over $100 billion had been spent, and by the end of the next fiscal year, 70% of the package is expected to be out the door.

Her bottom line: the Act is "absolutely" working, because job loss is slowing—from 700,000 in this year's first quarter to 436,000 in the second quarter—and GDP is not falling quite as quickly as before.

But, Romer said, it's not over yet:

As is always the case, especially around a turning point, there is substanial uncertainty to this forecast. There is even greater uncertainty about how strong the recovery is likely to be. The strength will depend on a range of factors, including how fast the economies of our trading partners recover; whether American consumers decide to increase their savings rate even more than they already have; and how quickly financial markets and business confidence return to normal levels. 

Romer also seems confident that the Recovery Act's investment incentives and tax relief for businesses are responsible for slower investment decline in this year's second quarter. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, states that received more stimulus funds have lower rates of job loss. And to top it off, most analysts estimate that GDP growth, which is now at -1 percent, is likely to become positive by the end of the year. But don't get too excited:

The U.S. economy had problems even before the current crisis. For this reason, the Administration is working with Congress to help rebuild the economy better. It is as if, when you went to the doctor for that strep throat, he discovered you had high blood pressure as well. The antibiotic was great for the infection, but he prescribed other medicine, a better diet, and a good dose of exercise for the blood pressure.

There's a whole lot of optimism here. But that's unsurprising coming from an administration official. The economy is still getting worse, but it's not getting worse as quickly as it was. It'll be nice when Romer can point to some real positive numbers, not just smaller negatives.

Jefferson vs. Jefferson

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

Yesterday, former Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was convicted by a Virginia federal judge for 11 criminal counts including bribery, racketeering, money laundering, and wire fraud. (He was acquitted on five counts including obstruction of justice and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.)

In commemoration of the judge's decision, let's take a moment to note the top five similarities between William Jefferson and American founding father Thomas Jefferson.

 

Thomas Jefferson: Was the man behind the Louisiana Purchase.

William Jefferson: Was the man behind many Louisiana purchases.

 

Thomas Jefferson: Stored food in dumbwaiters.

William Jefferson: Stored food and cash in a freezer.

 

Thomas Jefferson: Supported the virtues of the yeoman farmer.

William Jefferson: Grew up on a yeoman farm

 

Thomas Jefferson: Developed strong relationships with France.

William Jefferson: Developed strong relationships in Africa which led to his personal ventures in Nigeria, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea.

 

Thomas Jefferson: Supported the will of the people after the French Revolution.

William Jefferson: Supported by the will of the people through his brilliant political machine.

Carbon-Spewing Baby Monsters, Round 2

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

A debate that raged on this website back in March, when environmental correspondent Julia Whitty's posting about the climate change impact of childrearing led to nearly 150 comments—that's a lot—is being rekindled this week over at Livescience and Treehugger.

The issue at hand: Can we afford, environmentally speaking, to have so many children? (Whether our marriages can afford it is a separate debate.) As Whitty previously reported, scientists at Oregon State estimated that, under current conditions, each American child adds 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the average mother's lifetime carbon legacy, nearly six times the carbon footprint of a childless American woman. By contast, each Bandladeshi child adds only 56 metric tons to his mom's lifetime footprint.

5 Creative Uses for: Aspirin

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

The folks over at AltUse.com, a great site where readers offer ideas about alternative uses for common items, have nicely offered to share some of their brilliant ideas with us.

First up: extra ibuprofen aspirin. I like my aspirin cheap and plentiful, so I tend to buy the generic 500-tablet bottle. Problem is, it's tough to predict how much I'll use, so sometimes I end up with more pills than headaches as the expiration date approaches. Instead of throwing out the extras, AltUse's readers recommend using 'em to solve these problems:

1. Acne: The salycilic acid in asprin makes for a great facial for acne or aging skin. Crush 5-10 non-coated asprin tablets, add small dab of water and plain yogurt.

2. Sweat stains: Crush two aspirin trablets and add to 1/2 cup of warm water. Soak stained part of clothes item in the solution for approximately 2.5 hours.

3. Bee stings: To reduce the pain of a sting, moisten the skin around the sting, rub an aspirin tablet over the area for a minimum of one minute.

4. Dandruff: Crush two aspirin tablets, add to dab of shampoo, and wash hair.

5. Mosquito bites: Break open an aspirin table and apply to a mosquito bite for itch relief.

Got another idea for using up extra aspirin? Leave it in the comments.

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On Accepting Apologies

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

In an episode of "Mouthpiece Theater" last week, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post joked about what brands various luminaries might be served at future beer summits.  For Hillary Clinton, they suggested "Mad Bitch."

Ha ha ha!  Well, Mouthpiece Theater has been cancelled and Milbank and Cillizza have apologized.  But Bob Somerby isn't happy:

We’ve long been aware of Milbank’s oddness. But you haven’t seen “corporate media clueless chic” until you read the apology the bosses beat out of Cillizza. Each fellow was required to feign regret; below, you see how Christopher did it. So you’ll know, his blog at the Post is called “The Fix:”

CILLIZZA (8/5/09): I would like to personally apologize for the content in last Friday's video as it was inconsistent not only with the Post brand but, more important and personal to me, the Fix brand which I have worked so hard to cultivate.

Good God, that’s awful! Calling a woman a “bitch” is, at this level, remarkably stupid. Unless you’re a modern, upper-end “journalist,” in which case the practice is inconsistent with a long string of brands! Never mind the denigration of the woman in question! The real harm here was carelessly done to Cillizza’s beloved Fix brand!

This is something that bugs me.  I'm not quite as willing to forgive and forget this episode as MoJo's editor is, but neither do I think it was exactly a hanging offense.  Jokes go awry all the time.  More to the point, though, Cillizza apologized.  But these days, that's never good enough.  Either it's a "non-apology apology" or it's not groveling enough or it's not sincere enough or it came too late or it's an unforgivable crime and no apology can ever erase the stain.

Or something.  Get over it, folks.  Cillizza screwed up, but he groveled plenty for my taste. "I would like to personally apologize" is admirably direct, and there's nothing wrong with also acknowledging that his reputation is going to take a hit from this.

I've mentioned this before, but I sometimes wonder why anybody ever bothers to apologize for anything anymore since it never seems to do any good.  I remember that someone in comments to that post suggested that apologies should be done for their own sake, not in hopes of getting forgiveness.  That's an admirable sentiment, but it's also fabulously innocent of human nature.  Like it or not, public apologies are hard to do, and people hope to get something out them.  If all they get instead is more grief, they'll quit bothering with them.  Learning how to accept an apology is as important as learning how to give one.

Crappy Mac?

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports today that the Obama administration is considering reorganizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-backed mortgage lenders. The plan calls for a "good bank-bad bank" structure, where toxic assets and bad liabilities would be stripped from Fannie and Freddie and put in a government-backed "bad bank," leaving "two healthy financial companies with a clean slate." 

Back in January, Citibank split in what some characterized as a good bank-bad bank move. The "bad bank," Citi Holdings, promptly acquired a (very obvious) nickname. What should the very bad bank that will hold all of Fannie and Freddie's bad assets be called? I suggest "Crappy Mac." You?

Inside the Sausage Factory: Blackwater Edition

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 11:01 AM EDT

McClatchy's Mark Seibel and the News & Observer's Jay Price probably wish their email thread, discussing whether to cover the latest Blackwater allegations, didn't wind up splashed on the front page of Gawker, but I'm kinda glad it did. It offers a peek inside the sausage factory into the very real struggle reporters are having over whether—and how—to cover this story, which seems more like the plot of last season's 24 than a real-life crime drama. We're talking charges that Blackwater founder Erik Prince not only is out on a religious crusade to kill Muslims, but had informants whacked; allegations of child prostitution and gun-running; accusations of a wife-swapping and sex ring run out of the company's Moyock, North Carolina compound. Compared to this, allegations of tax evasion and money laundering seem downright tame.

These accusations were contained in the anonymous declarations of two ex-Blackwater employees, filed in connection with a series of civil suits brought on behalf of Iraqi civilians. These ex-employees say their identities must not be revealed because they fear retribution if their names are made public. But if we don't know who these guys are, we can't parse their motivations for coming forward, or whether they are really in a position to know what they say they do. John Does 1 and 2 say they've learned from former colleagues that "one of more persons who have provided information, or who were planning to provide information, about Erik Prince and Blackwater have been killed in suspicious circumstances." Yet they provide no details of who these victims were, omitting the most important clues for reporters who want to pursue this wild tale. Frankly, it's tough to know what to believe, which is likely convincing many journos to give this story a wide berth.

Are Health Care "Co-Ops" Good Enough?

| Thu Aug. 6, 2009 10:53 AM EDT

I just got booted from a conference call with Jacob Hacker, the Yale political scientist widely considered to be the brain behind the "public option" component of health care reform. Ayo, I'm tired of using technology. But before I was so rudely and abruptly removed, I got a chance to listen to Hacker slam the so-called health care "co-ops," which the Senate Finance committee is reportedly considering as an alternative to the public option.

Hacker said the public plan is a "crucial linchpin" of health care reform, and "co-ops should not be seen as a substitute for the public plan because they are not a serious way to provide public option's three main goals." Those three main goals, Hacker says, are the "three Bs": a Benchmark for prices, a Backup for patients, and a Backstop for cost-control.

Hacker argues that co-ops wouldn't be able to meet his goals for the public option because they "won't be effective in competing with private insurance plans." That, of course, is the larger point of the public option—competing with private insurance. But not everyone (especially not the insurance companies) wants the private plans to have to compete with anything. They barely compete with each other now. So co-ops that would face huge problems entering the market might be just the thing—if you want to keep the insurance companies happy.