Pulling the Trigger

A few days ago I noted that legislative "triggers" have a long history of sounding good but not really working.  Either nobody likes the idea in the first place or else they turn out to be toothless in the crunch. Over at Slate, Tim Noah takes a closer look and agrees: triggers are mostly just a bunch of flimflam:

Legislative triggers have an especially dismal history in health care policy, argues Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee. In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act required states to impose health-insurance reforms similar to those proposed in the current health reform bill; if the states failed to act, the federal department of Health and Human Services would impose them. States failed to implement reforms—and so did HHS.

In 2003, when Congress added a drug benefit to Medicare, it worried that its new program to provide coverage through private plans subsidized heavily by the government would prove ineffective. But a trigger to end the program focused only on whether these private plans would serve all regions of the country, which they did. The trigger failed to address the real problems that emerged: fraud, abrupt changes in formularies and drug charges after beneficiaries signed up, and high costs.

Meanwhile, a separate trigger in the bill required the president to address projected shortfalls within 15 days of receiving notice that 45 percent or more of Medicare funding was drawing down general revenues. Congress would then appropriate the necessary additional funds under an expedited procedure. But when President Bush notified Congress in 2006 that the 45 percent threshold had been exceeded, Congress did nothing. The threshold has been exceeded every year since then. Congress continues to do nothing.

So do triggers ever work?  According to Noah, the only clear success story has been with base closings: the 1990 base closing bill created a commission to recommend closures, with the closings to be automatically triggered unless Congress objected within 45 days.  It didn't, and the bases were closed.

That's better than nothing, I guess, but Noah seems on pretty firm ground when he says that a public option trigger in the healthcare bill would probably be little more than window dressing.  When the time comes, Congress will still have to define what the public option should look like, and that will require congressional action.  There's nothing automatic about it, trigger or no trigger.

Still, a trigger is probably better than nothing, especially if its requirements are spelled out in sharp detail.  Even if, practically speaking, nothing happens unless Congress acts, the existence of a clear formula would at least provide supporters with a hook for demanding action down the road.  In all likelihood, though, that's all it would be: a way to guarantee that the public option gets renewed attention someday.  But whether it's now or later, it's still going to have to get enough votes to land on the president's desk.  If that's where we end up, let's just make sure the trigger has a short enough fuse that it lands on this president's desk.

The morning of 9/11, when the alarm went off with National Public Radio’s Carl Kasell talking about planes flying into the World Trade Center, I was convinced I’d stumbled into a modern-day War of the Worlds. And that unreal feeling didn’t lift for the rest of that day—not when I got to the virtually empty Mother Jones office (there were still all those reports of more planes in the sky), not when I saw ex-CIA head James Woolsey on TV, already talking about how Saddam Hussein had to be behind this.

Nor, really, did it lift for another seven years. These were the years when we were served up lie after lie, when doubt became treason and reality itself grew increasingly preposterous. (We had a 21-year-old private from West Virginia do what?) Even the accounting, when it finally began, came not over the substance of what had happened, but focused on oddly procedural sideshows (did Scooter Libby out Valerie Plame Wilson? Did we really care, when the point was that Dick Cheney stovepiped intelligence to con the nation into war?) They were the years of truthiness—of claims just plausible enough to be believed, of accurate details gathered into deceitful conclusions, and of course of reporters who truthfully reported the lies they were told.

This is the first 9/11 anniversary when the country is no longer being run by those who so cynically exploited horror and legitimate anger. We have repudiated torture (though we’ll still send detainees to be tortured elsewhere on our behalf). We are withdrawing from Iraq, and will withdraw from Afghanistan sooner or later; most importantly, perhaps, we have elected a president who reminds the world that America is more than Gitmo and Predator drones.

But the end of the Bush era is not the end of the 9/11 era. There were deeper historical currents that made both the attack and its exploitation possible, and they still run strong.

Remember the poll that appeared around the fifth anniversary—revealing that one-third of Americans believed the government engineered the attacks or deliberately let them happen? Really, it wasn’t that surprising. At a time when both government and media were giving Americans ample reason for distrust, it wasn’t such a leap to conclude that the official story was not to be believed. The corollary to truthiness, its opposite and logical partner, was trutherism.

Trutherism is an expression of one of those deeper trends—the growing belief that no deed is too heinous, no deception too extreme, for the evil overlords in our government. It’s the legacy, at least in part, of the 60s and 70s, of Vietnam, J. Edgar Hoover, Watergate. It is also the belief that animates the birther and death-panel conspiracists of 2009: Of course the government would lie, cheat, and kill your grandmother. Why do you ask?

This is the world we live in post-9/11, and post Iraq War; a world where for many people, “the other side” has become so repugnant that nothing seems beneath it. We are no longer interested in understanding the people we disagree with; we just want to defeat them, for the good of the nation.

Which is where we come back to the events of 9/11. What made the horror of that day possible, in part, was the belief of 19 men that their adversaries were so dark and monstrous as to justify the mass murder of innocent people. And no, I’m not comparing anyone to Mohammed Atta. I’m saying that the seeds of evil are alive—however dormant—in most humans. (Germany, where I was born, found that out most catastrophically.) And we feed these seeds each time we act as if our adversaries weren’t worthy of basic respect, compassion, engagement. That is the truth of 9/11. Or at least one of them.
 

This is fun, creepy, illuminating, and scary. Sort of like rubbernecking at your own wreck.

It's Personas, a component of the Metropath(ologies) exhibit on display at the MIT Museum by the Sociable Media Group from the MIT Media Lab.

Personas shows you how the Internet sees you. Enter your name and this devlishly clever web crawler scours for information and attempts to characterize you... to fit you into a predetermined set of categories created by an algorithmic process from a massive corpus of data. The process is presented visually in a cool and dynamic way.

Check it out. You get to be reduced to a pretty barcode.

There's been plenty of study of physical processes like sea ice retreat, melting glaciers, and rising temperatures caused by global climate change in the Arctic. What’s understudied is the living North, including humans.

Now a new paper in Science reviews current knowledge on the ecological consequences of climate change in the Arctic and issues a call for action in needed areas of research.

Numerous warming effects include:

  • A lengthening growing season following a rapid spring melt
  • Earlier plant flowering
  • Earlier appearance of insects following a warmer spring
  • Deaths of newborn seal pups following melting of their under-snow birthing chambers
  • Shrub expansion on the tundra as the climate warms. This initiates a positive feedback loop: More shrubs means more warming and warmer soils lead to increased nutrient availability, growing yet more shrubs and cranking up more warming.

The start and end of winter is changing too. When it didn’t snow at Toolik Field Station until Thanksgiving a few years ago the soil got cold and stayed so cold that microbes in the soil were barely active. The spring green-up was slow in coming and likely affected caribou forage.

In 2008, snow fell in September and never quit. The warmer winter soils with active microbes were insulated from the cold and were able to provide nutrients to plants that stimulated growth.

"Humans live in the Arctic with plants and animals and we care about the ecosystem services, such as filtering water, fiber production, food production, and cultural values that the Arctic provides," Syndonia Bret-Harte tells the University of Alaska. The average Arctic temperature is expected to increase by 6 C. "That’s a mind bogglingly large change to contemplate."

FYI, you can read some cool research goals of Amy Breen and others in the International Tundra Experiment investigating warming in the permafrost at Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists. Lots of polar research recapped here.
 

Glenn Beck earned another scalp today as the President's communications director for the National Endowment of the Arts, Yossi Sergant, was asked to resign for urging politically inclined artists to support the Obama administration's agenda. This comes after Obama's green jobs czar Van Jones was forced to resign after Beck repeatedly (and successfully) portrayed him as a liberal ideologue.

For the past few weeks, Color of Change has been urging advertisers to withdraw their support from Beck's program after his racially charged remarks about Barack Obama. They boasted this week that 62 major advertisers have already joined the boycott. And Media Matters recently got on the case, tracking which advertisers have stayed loyal to the widely popular Glenn Beck program. Here's today's list:

  • Lear Capital
  • Legacy Publishing Company (The Total Transformation Program)
  • The Foundation for a Better Life
  • News Corp. (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Carbonite
  • LifeLock
  • Mortgage relief hotline 1-888-336-5967
  • Ashley Furniture (Which previously stated it had "pulled" its advertising from Beck)
  • Rosland Capital
  • National Review
  • Conservatives for Patient's Rights
  • Merit Financial
  • Superior Gold Group
  • Loan modification helpline 800-917-8549
  • IRSTaxAgreements.com
  • Clarity Media Group (The Weekly Standard)
  • Roche Diagnostics (Accu-Chek Aviva)
  • Zero Technologies (ZeroWater)

For a program that used to include ads of AT&T, UPS and Bank of America, it's clear that Beck's advertising has taken a serious hit. But as he continues to earn scalps, it appears that his persuasive potency hasn't yet felt the same strain.

Our Lost Decade

Today the Census Bureau released its latest income numbers, and they weren't pretty: median income dropped by nearly $2,000 between 2007 and 2008.  Nor was the long term picture much better: median income in the past decade has dropped from $52,587 in 1999 to $50,303 in 2008.

But there's more to your earnings than just cash income.  As we've all been reminded over and over lately, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, which means that healthcare premiums paid by your employer have risen dramatically during the past decade.  That's all part of your compensation too.  So if you add in employers' contributions to healthcare premiums, how do things look then?

Answer: a little better, but still nothing to write home about.  Roughly speaking, if you add together both cash income and healthcare premiums and adjust everything for inflation, median income over the past decade has increased from about $56,400 to $57,000.  In other words, a whopping 1%.  It really has been a lost decade1.

1Though not for everyone.  During the same period, the average income of the richest tenth of a percent increased by about $2 million, or about 35%.  No wonder there wasn't much left for the rest of us.

NOTE FOR NERDS: There's no bulletproof source for the value of healthcare premiums over time, and in any case the value differs depending on whether you're married, single, have kids, etc.  So here's what I did to get a rough cut on the data.

Basic cash income table is here.  Healthcare premium estimates for the past decade are here.  I subtracted the employee contribution and then took the average of family and single coverage.  This may understate the cost a bit, but not by much.  Then I applied the GDP deflator to put all the healthcare costs in 2008 dollars.  This is strictly a cheap and cheerful bloggy estimate, but it's probably not too far off the mark.

Rep. Joe Wilson, the congressman who accused the President of lying last night during his address on health care to a joint session of Congress, isn’t just some mean-spirited buffoon. As a South Carolina legislator, he was one of only 7 state senators who fought to keep the confederate battle flag flying over the state capital. South Carolina, of course, was the first state to leave the Union after Lincoln was elected. Flying the confederate battle flag was a big deal in the south, which was once—and in some cases is still—inhabited by the KuKluxKlan and its successors. Here, via Kris Kromm’s excellent blog Facing South, is what happened when South Carolina's state legislature voted to take down the flag in the 1990s:

Viva Big Pharma

Regardless of what happens from here on out, the current health care reform clearly will offer no significant challenge to Big Pharma, which year after year rates among the top two or three most profitable industries in the world. This leaves the drug manufacturers free to carry out their vital, life-saving work. One example of that work appears today on John Mack’s highly informative Pharma Marketing Blog:

A Long Island man infringed on Pfizer’s trademark by towing a 20-foot replica missile with ‘Viva Viagra’ painted on its side through midtown Manhattan, eventually parking it in front of the drugmaker’s 42nd Street headquarters, a federal judge ruled.

This story dates back to last year, when a couple of guys from the Island came up with the rather kooky idea of using decommissioned military ordinance as an advertising medium. According to their web site, their company, Jet Angel, “takes the target marketing capabilities of mobile billboards and adds an experience for consumers to achieve the ultimate viewer captivation”—in other words, everyone is guaranteed to look at a giant missile being towed through the streets.
 
Apparently seeking to prove this claim, they emblazoned a missile with the slogan from Pfizer’s grotesque “Viva Viagra” ads, drove it around Manhattan, and hung out for a while in front of the drugmaker’s corporate headquarters. They followed up with an email to Pfizer:

Fiore Cartoon: Socialized USA

According to its conservative foes, health care reform=socialism. But as satirist Mark Fiore points out, these same people have no problem with a socialized military, police force, Medicare...

Watch his cartoon after the jump:

It's Laura, zooming by with the latest MoJo must reads. 3 non-health-care stories today:

1) Is AIPAC still the chosen one? Bob Dreyfuss explains the shifting terrain for the Israel lobby.

2) Who's really behind the Van Jones attack? Meet Phil Kerpen, master astroturfer and green job blocker extraordinaire.

3) Dr. Evil's Payday: How PR op Richard Berman's "economic literacy" nonprofit spun payday loans into gold.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.