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.

Glenn Beck has another scalp. Yosi Sergant, communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts, stepped down today after Beck and the conservative Washington Times accused him of improperly encouraging artists to support the political goals of the Obama administration.

Yosi SergantYosi SergantOn August 10th, Sargent joined a conference call with the White House Office of Public Engagement and roughly 75 artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives, according to Patrick Courrielche, an Los-Angeles based art consultant who blogged about the call late last month before appearing on Beck's show. He described the call as "an attempt to recapture the excitement and enthusiasm of the campaign," and use artists as "tools of the state" to support the administration's positions. 

Sergant is uniquely vulnerable to those claims. Before joining the endowment, he led the media effort for Shepard Fairey, the street artist who created the "Hope" portrait that helped turn the president into a pop icon.

The call's official purpose was to discuss United We Serve, the White House's (heretofore) uncontroversial push to promote volunteerism and civic engagement.  Discussing how the artists could help support the effort, Sargent said, "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's healthcare, education, the environment." Courrielche, a self-described "a skeptic of BIG government," saw in that statement an effort to create artistic support for Obama's policy goals. But those are also areas of volunteerism that are promoted by the government's Corporation for National and Community Service, which participated in the call.

Still, Courrielche claims that the context of the conversation was highly political. On his blog, he says that the "Hope" poster and musician Will.i.am's "Yes We Can" song were presented during the call "as shining examples of our group's clear role in the election." Yet the recordings he has produced so far don't back up that claim (A side note: recording calls in California without the knowlege of those being taped is technically illegal).

Even so, the recordings portray Sargent speaking in a way that is clearly ill-advised for the director of the NEA, an organization that has been a Republican punching bag for decades. Sargent's main problem seems to be an overabundance of enthusiasm:

This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government, what that looks like legally. We're still trying to figure out the laws of putting government websites on Facebook. And the use of Twitter. This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it's being made. So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak with each other safely. And we can really work together to move the needle to get stuff done.

He added:

Get the word out. Like I said, this is a community that knows how to make a stink.

And, according to Beck, an unnamed person on the call says:

Through this group we can create stronger community amonst ourselves to get involved in things that we are passionate about, as we did in the campaign. . .We can continue to get involved to do things we care about, but also to push the President and push his administration.

Clearly, Sargent may have crossed the line, especially if the last quote is from him. And yet there are many unanswered questions: Does "making a stink" mean whacking the conservative beehive? Do the "legal issues" Sargent mentions have anything to do with promoting Obama's policies? Possibly, but it would be nice to have more context.  Not that the ambiguity made any difference to Beck, who claims the NEA is engaging in Nazi-like propaganda.

The NEA declined to comment to Mother Jones beyond a prepared statement. "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda," acting communications director Victoria Hutter wrote in an email, "and any suggestions to that end are simply false."

 Though it may be frustrating to many of Sargent's friends and supporters, his demotion (he's still with the NEA, Hutter added) is not surprising. Few other government programs have been as closely watched and viciously attacked by conservative Republicans in the past 30 years. In Mike Huckabee's race against Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, he famously called the veteran Senator a pornographer because he was an NEA backer. And who could forget Jesse Helms' campaign against the Piss Christ? Sargent was foolish not to realize that the artistic-Democrat conspiracy is a powerful meme in the GOP toolbox. It's sad, but someone in his position has to be almost pathologically careful not to fuel it. And that's got to be especially hard for someone so attached to political art. Yesterday night Sargent simply Tweeted, "it's go time."

Swimming With Sharks

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers writes about the antics of congressional Republicans during Obama's speech last night:

Yes, the GOP of 2009 is the party of torture and fiscal recklessness. But as Joe Wilson's outburst last night made clear, it is every bit as much the party of the College Republicans.

....Juvenile, manipulative, impossibly smarmy, hateful — or at least more than willing to use the weapon of other people's hate — and, above all, relentlessly cynical. To these (mostly) men, politics is not the "art of the possible", not a means for peaceably grappling with the most difficult and complex issues of the day, or for attempting to improve the lives of people you will never meet. It is nothing but a game, one where the object is not just to win but to destroy your enemies with a weird mix of angry slander and junior high insults — and to have a good chuckle while admiring your handiwork.

"Swimming With Sharks," Frank Foer's 2005 article about the College Republicans, is one of the best political pieces I've ever read.  If you didn't see it back when it came out, do yourself a favor and read it now.

The Obama Economy

John Hempton, who is himself merely a humble (Australian) investment manager, says that one investment opportunity in particular might tell us something about how Barack Obama is doing after seven months in office.  It turns out that the big runup in firearm sales to people who were convinced that Obama planned to confiscate their guns seems to be over.  In fact, according to Smith & Wesson, their order book is collapsing:

The warning about the backlog not being binding is new — and it is clear from the new disclosure that they are having massive problems during this quarter with order cancellation.

The backlog dropped from $268 million to $178 million — a drop of 90 million.  Ten percent of that (say $27 million) was order cancellation — but a net $63 million of sales came from the backlog.  Total sales were 102 million — and less than 100 million in firearms.  The rate at which Americans are placing orders for new Smith and Wesson handguns is collapsing.

The company did not tell us the current forward order book.  At that rate of collapse what they are facing is a disaster. Whether that says anything about the size and intensity of belief of the Rush Limbaugh right — well I will leave that for my readers to discern.  We just want to make money for our clients — so we are short Smith & Wesson.

Easy come, easy go. But perhaps this means the "Obama is a fascist tyrant" bubble is about to burst — since, you know, it turns out that he's actually a fairly conventional mainstream liberal politician with exactly zero interest in re-igniting any facet of the culture wars whatsoever.  And just how many extra guns do you really need to protect yourself against imaginary enemies anyway?  Just saying.

You've heard of "regulatory capture," right?  This is the phenomenon in which interest groups end up running the government agencies originally designed to rein them in.  So farm interests dominate the USDA, Wall Street interests dominate the SEC, corporations dominate the NLRB, etc.

Today, Ryan Grim suggests that exactly the opposite has happened with the Federal Reserve.  The field of monetary economics is relatively small, and a startling number of its practitioners either currently work for the Fed or have at one time.  So if you want to get ahead in the field, it pays not to be too critical of the Fed:

The Federal Reserve's Board of Governors employs 220 PhD economists and a host of researchers and support staff, according to a Fed spokeswoman. The 12 regional banks employ scores more.

....It's fair to [estimate] that there are something like 1,000 to 1,500 monetary economists working across the country. Add up the 220 economist jobs at the Board of Governors along with regional bank hires and contracted economists, and the Fed employs or contracts with easily 500 economists at any given time. Add in those who have previously worked for the Fed — or who hope to one day soon — and you've accounted for a very significant majority of the field.

....Affiliations with the Fed have become the oxygen of academic life for monetary economists. "It's very important, if you are tenure track and don't have tenure, to show that you are valued by the Federal Reserve," says Jane D'Arista, a Fed critic and an economist with the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

....The Fed [also] keeps many of the influential editors of prominent academic journals on its payroll. It is common for a journal editor to review submissions dealing with Fed policy while also taking the bank's money. A HuffPost review of seven top journals found that 84 of the 190 editorial board members were affiliated with the Federal Reserve in one way or another.

"Try to publish an article critical of the Fed with an editor who works for the Fed," says [Jamie] Galbraith. And the journals, in turn, determine which economists get tenure and what ideas are considered respectable.

Read the whole thing.  Even Paul Krugman gets into the act, claiming that ever since he began criticizing Alan Greenspan a few years ago, he's been blackballed from the Fed's annual Jackson Hole get-together of everyone who's anyone.

Overall, though, this is more a sociological critique than a claim that the Fed uses its raw power to stifle dissent.  Rather, you pull your punches a bit knowing that the editor of the journal you're submitting to used to work for Greenspan.  You dial it down a notch because someday you might want a job at the Fed yourself.  You stay within the mainstream because that's the safest place to be when upwards of half your profession depends on the largesse of the Fed to feed their families.

Is this true?  I don't know, but it certainly sounds plausible — and the circle of monetary economists really is startlingly small.  And from a journalistic point of view, the great thing about this story is that it's nonfalsifiable: the more economists who pooh pooh your theory, the more proof you have that they've all been captured by the Fed.  And you have to admit, it sure explains a lot about what happened over the past decade or so.  Did 98% of the profession really believe that there was no housing bubble in 2004?  Or did they just decide that staying quiet was a better career move?  The latter seems rather more likely, doesn't it?

(Via Tim Fernholz.)

Rep. Joe Wilson may have apologized for heckling the president during his speech to Congress Wednesday, but plenty of people apparently wish he hadn't, most notably, Rush Limbaugh. But his outburst has earned him support among another fringe of the right-wing: immigration foes, who were thrilled to hear Wilson vocally challenge Obama on his claim that health care reform would not cover illegal immigrants. Today, the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (ALI-PAC) came to Wilson' defense, urging supporters to speak out online and on talk radio to support the South Carolina Republican.

"It is a real shame that the rest of Congress was not on their feet pointing out the President's lie about illegal aliens in his Health Care plans along with Joe Wilson," said William Gheen, the group's executive director. "Joe Wilson yelled out what millions of Americans were thinking during Obama's speech. We agree with what Joe Wilson said, even if we did not, we would defend his right as an American to speak his mind."

Gheen became a media phenom in 2005 after fighting a North Carolina bill that would have allowed some non-citizens to qualify for in-state tuition at some of North Carolina's public colleges and universities. A talk radio host, he is a prominent promoter of the reconquista conspiracy theory, believing that Mexicans are plotting to seize American territory. He has close ties to the Minutemen and other anti-immigration factions that the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed hate groups. Wilson may have disgraced his party last night, but for guys like Gheen, Wilson is a bona fide hero.

In his address to Congress, President Barack Obama quoted a letter that Senator Ted Kennedy wrote him after he learned he was soon to die. It's worth reading the whole note:

May 12, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

I wanted to write a few final words to you to express my gratitude for your repeated personal kindnesses to me – and one last time, to salute your leadership in giving our country back its future and its truth.

On a personal level, you and Michelle reached out to Vicki, to our family and me in so many different ways. You helped to make these difficult months a happy time in my life.

You also made it a time of hope for me and for our country.

When I thought of all the years, all the battles, and all the memories of my long public life, I felt confident in these closing days that while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the President who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society. For me, this cause stretched across decades; it has been disappointed, but never finally defeated. It was the cause of my life. And in the past year, the prospect of victory sustained me-and the work of achieving it summoned my energy and determination.

There will be struggles – there always have been – and they are already underway again. But as we moved forward in these months, I learned that you will not yield to calls to retreat - that you will stay with the cause until it is won. I saw your conviction that the time is now and witnessed your unwavering commitment and understanding that health care is a decisive issue for our future prosperity. But you have also reminded all of us that it concerns more than material things; that what we face is above all a moral issue; that at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.

And so because of your vision and resolve, I came to believe that soon, very soon, affordable health coverage will be available to all, in an America where the state of a family’s health will never again depend on the amount of a family’s wealth. And while I will not see the victory, I was able to look forward and know that we will – yes, we will – fulfill the promise of health care in America as a right and not a privilege.

In closing, let me say again how proud I was to be part of your campaign- and proud as well to play a part in the early months of a new era of high purpose and achievement. I entered public life with a young President who inspired a generation and the world. It gives me great hope that as I leave, another young President inspires another generation and once more on America’s behalf inspires the entire world.

So, I wrote this to thank you one last time as a friend- and to stand with you one last time for change and the America we can become.

At the Denver Convention where you were nominated, I said the dream lives on.

And I finished this letter with unshakable faith that the dream will be fulfilled for this generation, and preserved and enlarged for generations to come.

With deep respect and abiding affection,

Ted

It really is too bad that Kennedy won't be at the signing ceremony. And, yes, I am assuming there will be one.

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Scott Payne of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen has posted an interview with me about how the political blogosphere has evolved over the past seven years.  If this seems like the most gruesome topic possible, don't click the link.  Do not click the link.  If it sounds like a decent excuse to avoid work for a few minutes, however, go ahead.  Click away.  It's short, and Scott had the good taste to illustrate it with the best photograph ever taken of me.