Half-Pint

There's something seriously wrong with America's dairy industry. A thumbnail sketch: California dairy producers committing suicide like rural subsistence farmers in Andrah Pradesh; big-eyed dairy cows packed off to the slaughter house in record numbers; New Yorkers dolling out $6 a gallon, even as raw-milk prices plummet to lows not seen since Jimmy Carter's administration. And in the midst of it all, dairy giant Dean Foods, the country's largest processor of raw milk, is having the best year ever.

What gives? Despite the hold-steady price-per-gallon at Ralph's, wholesale milk prices have plummeted to half of what they were a year ago, and just more than 20 percent what they were at the beginning of 2008. The situation is almost as egregious for consumers as it is for dairy farmers, who continue to abandon the industry or face pumping at a loss.

In New York City—where they have a milk price-gouging hotline!—the price of a gallon ranges from $2.25 to $6 in the same borough, despite traditionally strict, and strictly enforced, retail maximums. Late last year, the agency responsible for capping the price just ...stopped. Meanwhile, California, the country's top dairy-producing state, has completely abandoned its retail price floors for milk.

None of this has helped stanch the flow of dirt cheap raw milk into an already glutted consumer market. Farmers blame the nation's two dairy processing giants, milk co-op Dairy Farmers of America and Dean Foods, which together manage virtually all of the 22.2 billion gallons of milk produced annually in the United States. Dean owns 50 major brands, and farmers who hope to sell under them are obligated to work through the DFA. And, surprise surprise, as milk plunged in value, Dean's profits have soared.

Pharmaceutical Innovation

Right now, it's arguable that government ground rules give pharmaceutical companies too little incentive to innovate.  If FDA regs forced them to demonstrate more than just superiority to a sugar pill, drug company incentives might be aligned a little more strongly toward finding genuinely effective new therapies instead of yet another statin or ED pill or a slightly different heartburn formulation.

Or maybe not.  It's an argument worth having.  But the current system is by no means the free market juggernaut conservatives like to pretend it is.  Changing the ground rules might very well increase innovation, not stifle it.

Quote of the Day

From James Fallows, after watching Jon Stewart's show last night:

I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey.

Yep.  Here's the conversation I had with Marian last night at about 11:10 pm:

M: Do you want to watch the interview?

K: Who is he having on?

M: Um, some former lieutenant governor of New York or something.

K: Oh shit.

I was appalled that Stewart chose to have McCaughey on, and I agree with Fallows that he was unable to handle her.  Partly this was because McCaughey affects a winsome, faux innocent style that makes it hard for Stewart to bully her.  Partly it's because she's ruthlessly devoid of scruples.  Partly it's because she knows she doesn't have to "win" the debate.  She merely has to sew a tiny seed of doubt.

McCaughey is pure poison.  She cares about nothing except making sure that no healthcare reform of any kind is ever adopted in the United States, and in that cause she's willing to say or do anything.  It was a mistake giving her yet another forum to spread her lies.

4 Hopes for Obama's Farmers' Market

You may have read yesterday that President Obama wants to set up a farmer's market at the White House. On first glance, this confirms my suspicions that President Obama is pretty damn cool. In his words:

One of the things that we’re trying to do now is to figure out, can we get a little farmers’ market outside of the White House... I’m not going to have all of you all just tromping around inside, but right outside the White House so that we can, and that is a win-win situation.

It gives suddenly D.C. more access to good, fresh food, but it also is this enormous potential revenue-maker for local farmers in the area. And those kinds of connections can be made all throughout the country, and has to be part of how we think about health.

But coolness aside, if this idea becomes reality, the Obamas should be careful to make it a sustainable market for local farmers rather than a kitschy tourist attraction bogged down by pins and t-shirts that say "Yes We Can Farm" and "Change We Can Grow In." But let's face it, due to the massive security detail the market would require and the overwhelming draw for Washingtonians and tourists alike, the latter is more likely. After all, markets that truly support local, organic farmers have become increasingly rare even as farmers' markets, both organic and kitschy, increased threefold between 1994 and 2008.

So taking the touristy factor as a given, how can Obama make the White House farmers' market most beneficial to farmers and consumers alike? I have four ideas:

How to Win

Does Barack Obama really believe that calm bipartisanship is a successful political strategy in modern Washington DC?  Well, it got him elected, didn't it?  Matt Yglesias takes it from there:

My worry would be that it strikes me as very plausible that a political strategist could overlearn the lessons of his own success. The fact of the matter is that Obama’s margin of victory was more-or-less exactly what you would expect based on fundamentals-driven models of presidential elections. We know that the strategy Obama employed “worked” (he won, after all) but there’s no clear evidence that it was particularly brilliant. But you can easily imagine Obama and David Axelrod and other key players becoming overconvinced by their own success.

Nobody ever, ever, ever believes this.  There's always a narrative behind presidential victories, and there always will be, despite the fact that 90% of them are dead wrong.  Obama ran an excellent primary campaign and a perfectly decent general election campaign, but the latter boiled down to one word: "Change."  That's what most elections boil down to: "Time for a change" vs. "Experience counts."  They both work fine in alternate cycles, but neither is especially brilliant or especially new.  Pericles pioneered them both in his long career, and that was 25 centuries ago.

The post-partisan schtick might yet work.  But even though it was effective during last year's campaign, it's not really what won him the presidency.  A little bit of ruthlessness vs. Hillary Clinton got him through June, and repeating a nice, simple message over and over and over kept him on top throughout the fall.  That's a combination he might want to remember.

Branding 101: What Not to Name Your Hedge Fund

Branding is everything. So when you're starting up a new hedge fund and are going for something memorable and daring, well, "Ground Zero" probably isn't your best bet. Tell that to this ex-Lehmann brothers exec Edward Fillippe. Quips NY Mag:

Maybe he said to himself, "What can I do to distract people from the fact that I worked at Lehman Brothers, the downtown–New York–based bank that collapsed disastrously and nearly took the entire financial system with it? I know! I'll name it in homage to an even worse collapse, one that actually killed people and precipitated several long and tragic wars! Then everyone will think whatever I am doing is not nearly as bad."

The Ground Zero Strategic Commodities Fund will begin trading by the first quarter of 2010, and they're hiring!

"Yes, But"

Charles Krauthammer writes today that he'd like to hold a reasoned discussion about end-of-life counseling.  "We might start by asking Sarah Palin to leave the room," he says.

That's "close to reasonable," says Joe Klein.  But no, it isn't.

Krauthammer is part of the swelling "Yes, but" crowd, and for my money these guys are infinitely worse than the flat-out nutters themselves.  I mean, at least nutters have the excuse of being nutters, right?  They can be dismissed or mocked or yelled at or whatever.  But everyone outside the nutter base understands that they're crazy.

Then there's the "Yes, but" contingent.  Sober.  Serious.  Looking at all sides of the issue.  Stroking their chins.  Coming to conclusions.

And what are those conclusions?  Well, golly, the nutters might be nuts, but they have a point!  Allowing Medicare to reimburse doctors for advance care counseling might be the first tiny step toward turning them into junior Dr. Mengeles after all.  Krauthammer bases this conclusion primarily on his belief that living wills are pretty much useless:

So why get Medicare to pay the doctor to do the counseling? Because we know that if this white-coated authority whose chosen vocation is curing and healing is the one opening your mind to hospice and palliative care, we've nudged you ever so slightly toward letting go.

It's not an outrage. It's surely not a death panel. But it is subtle pressure applied by society through your doctor. And when you include it in a health-care reform whose major objective is to bend the cost curve downward, you have to be a fool or a knave to deny that it's intended to gently point the patient in a certain direction, toward the corner of the sickroom where stands a ghostly figure, scythe in hand, offering release.

Subtle pressure indeed.  The only thing that's subtle here is Krauthammer's faux evenhandedness.  Up until two minutes ago, politicians and pundits across the political spectrum universally believed that advance care counseling was an entirely sane and uncontroversial practice, one that any compassionate society would encourage.  Those same politicians and pundits knew perfectly well that it was never about guiding patients in any particular direction and has never been motivated by cost savings in any way.  They knew that other countries reimburse for advance care planning — just like any other use of a doctor's time — and it hasn't led to any pressure, subtle or otherwise, to pull the plug on grandma.

They knew this.  Until two minutes ago.  But now they're pretending — subtly, temperately — that maybe it isn't true after all.  And they're doing this not because they've changed their minds, but because they want to kill healthcare reform for political reasons and they don't care whether innocent bystanders get hurt in the process.  Their "Yes, but" campaign might ensure that patients forevermore mistrust doctors who talk about advance care directives, but they also know that sober, serious, subtle op-eds endorsing this point of view are more likely to derail healthcare reform among the chattering classes than Sarah Palin's Facebook maunderings.  It is intellectual venality of the first order.

Steele Goes Postal on Health Care Reform

Since becoming the chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele has not acquired a reputation for the cogency of his arguments. It's hard to pick a favorite from among his many asinine comments, but mine is probably the time he countered Obama's suggestion that empathy is an valuable quality in a federal judge with this sparkling bon mot: "I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!" (His remark that Perez Hilton is the posterchild of "what an empathetic judge looks like"—he was presumably referring to the beauty pageant judiciary—was also pretty classic.)

But I digress. Today, David Corn takes issue with yet another of Steele's poorly thought-out comparisons—this time, his assertion that government-run health care is "inefficient, limits choices, and hemorrhages taxpayer money like the Post Office." David asks the obvious question: don't most people have an infinitely more positive experience with the Post Office than they do with private insurance companies? 

 

 

Fear in the Heartland

The health care “debate” has been transformed into a confusing screaming match fueled by wild nativist fears. As Senator Chuck Grassley has found out at town meetings in Iowa, health care really is not the issue that’s on the minds of many. Instead, it’s all about the nation’s economic turmoil: People are hurting, and don’t see the stimulus plan helping them. From there, its a short leap to attacking the Federal Reserve, and what many perceive as a threatening, directionless federal government that is bent on controlling their daily lives.  And Grassley appears to be ready to capitalize on the anger:

Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grassley said. “They’re seeing the stimulus not working. They’re seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They’re seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it’s not good for the country.”

These fears remind me of the fears that ran through the Midwest more than 20 years ago, during the 1984 presidential election. Back then Walter Mondale was vainly fighting Ronald Reagan, against a backdrop of farm foreclosures,bank crackdowns, penny auctions, and fight back by rural people in the heartland. Then as now, people showed up in angry knots–not unlike today’s town meetings–at foreclosure s to shout down the auctioneers, trying to save a farm. The gun of choice at that time was the semi-automatic mini 14, which was held by some in the same esteem as the Colt 45 did back in the day. Some turned to the Bible, watched the skies for Soviet bombers, dug themselves into bunkers.

 

Too Much Compassion

I tend to be pretty squishy and bleeding heart over things like compassionate release for prisoners with terminal diseases.  Usually, though, they're 70 years old and have served 40 years in prison or something.  Releasing a mass murderer after eight years is another thing entirely.  Compassion ought to have its limits, and the Scottish government seems to have lost its mind in the case of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.  The Libyans aren't exactly helping matters either.  What a mess.