Snowe Votes Yes

Bizarrely enough, the most important person in the galaxy right now appears to be Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.  And apparently Snowe has come through, announcing that she'll vote for healthcare reform.  "When history calls, history calls," she said.

And with that, my forecast for healthcare reform, which has already increased from 60% to 70% to 75%, now goes to about 90%.  There are still plenty of details to fight over, but Snowe's decision makes success of some kind far more likely than not.

Shut Up!

Disagreements about healthcare policy or cap-and-trade emission auctioning are all well and good, but if we're going to yell at each other about something, shouldn't we yell about TV ads that yell back at us?  Over at his blog, Berin Szoka provides a libertarian laundry list of reasons why the government shouldn't enact rules that regulate the audio volume of TV commercials.  Here's one of them:

I understand that most users probably do wish that commercials probably weren’t so loud. But, this very fact, combined with the ease with which users can now skip all commercials (36% of U.S. homes have a DVR), creates a pretty powerful incentive for the TV industry to self-regulate the volume level of advertising. “Noisy or strident” advertising is just another example of the “tragedy of the commons” at work: Absent any rules, every individual advertiser has an incentive to jack up the volume in order to attract attention, and doing so will probably work up to a certain point of increased annoyance by the user. But collectively, such ads hurt all advertisers because they increase ad blindness, ad deafness, and/or outright commercial skipping.

The same dynamic plays out on the Internet, where flashing, blinking, bouncing, strobing dancing ads really drive users nuts and make them turn to tools like AdBlock Plus and Flashblock — which is why ad networks like Google have policies that implement their own “time, place and manner” rules out of pure self-interest. Such rules are useful and valuable. They benefit advertisers, consumers and the ad network alike, because there exists a basic harmony of interests between them: annoying ads don’t really benefit anyone in the long-term.  Do we really want government bureaucrats making these decisions instead?

Yes.  Yes I do.  You see, blaring TV commercials have been an obvious and fixable problem for several decades and no "basic harmony of interests" has yet manifested itself.1  This suggests to me that it never will unless the industry is pressured into doing it.  Plus there's this: the industry has been promising to enact voluntary standards off and on for years, but oddly enough, they never seem to make any progress unless Congress starts making threatening noises about doing it for them.  Since I expect this state of affairs to last approximately forever, I would be delighted to see Congress call their bluff and just pass a bill setting out some reasonable standards.

This comes via Peter Suderman, who agrees with Szoka and is therefore now my sworn enemy.2  Nothing personal, of course, just business.  However, I did learn something new from him.  Namely that "there are various technological solutions from companies like Dolby and SRS that help keep TV volumes on a more even keel."  Really?  I didn't know that.  But click the links and judge for yourself.  This technology doesn't appear to be very widespread yet, and I suspect that managing volume at the source is a better approach anyway (especially since the most annoying ads are deliberately engineered to be annoying).  Still, it's better than nothing since neither the industry nor Congress has made much progress over the years.

But does it work?  Does anyone out there have one of these wonder devices?  What's the skinny?

1A shortcoming, by the way, that's made worse by the artistic decisions of certain shows.  The worst for me is 24, which I have to crank up in order to hear the hoarse stage whisper that Kiefer Sutherland affects in his Jack Bauer role.  The ads are loud even at the best of times, but they're really loud when you've already turned up the volume just to hear the show itself.

2This is an issue, like the Do Not Call registry, that transcends politics.  I don't really care whether volume regulations are liberal or conservative or trample the Bill of Rights or whatever.  I just want the noise to stop.  If it takes jackboots to stop it, then so be it.

Since everyone's always grousing about the washer/dryer sock mystery thing, I'm not going to belabor that point. What I will say is this: I am convinced that my feet are extra sharp, owing to the really remarkably short length of time a typical pair of socks lasts me before one gets a hole. For those afflicted with pointy heels like mine (or flimsy socks), a few ideas from AltUse.com and Yankee Magazine's excellent book Don't Throw It Out:

1. Protect your shoes: Slip socks over shoes to keep them from scuffing in your suitcase.

2. Make a chew toy: Knot a sock up, or tie a few together around a rubber ball. Hours of fun for Fido. Don't you wish you were so easily entertained?

3. Warm up your arms: Like leg warmers: Cut the toe off an old pair of socks and bunch 'em up on your forearms. If you want to cover your hands, too, you can cut a thumb hole into the heel.

4. Store ornaments: Kids' socks work well for covering delicate Christmas ornaments. This trick works well for packing up tchotchkes for a move, too.

5. Clean with precision: Dusty, hard-to-reach corners are no match for your sock-covered hand. Spritz the toe with cleaning solution and attack.

ABC may be looking to wash its hands of Ugly Betty (returning to TV this Friday with a two-hour premiere), but the formula that provided America Ferrera with perpetual braces and Salma Hayek with a small screen career is not about to give up that easily. Adapted from the insanely successful Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, Ugly Betty has spawned a small army of imitators, from the Philippines to China, Brazil to Germany. 

Despite the telenovela's relative obscurity in the English-speaking US, they have a long history of international success. Adapted for Indian TV in the 1980s, the Latin American soaps have enjoyed significant popularity in parts of Africa and the former Soviet Union. But none has been as well-received (or as frequently copied) as the story of Beatriz Aurora Pinzon Solano, the original Betty protagonist of the 1999 Colombian serial. In anticipation of Ugly Betty's Friday premiere, here are a few of the best adaptations of Betty: 

Israel: "Ugly Esti"

Is Cost Shifting Bogus?

If the government cuts Medicare reimbursement rates, will healthcare providers just make up for it by charging the rest of us more?  This is called "cost shifting," and Keith Hennessey doesn't believe it:

While doctors and hospital administrators swear by it, I have always been skeptical of the cost-shifting argument.  If you believe that a hospital will raise the prices it charges privately insured patients in reaction to cuts in reimbursement rates from government programs, you must believe (1) the hospital has pricing power and (2) it has until now charged less than it could.  (1) is quite plausible in some circumstances.  I find (2) incredible.  If someone has pricing power, I generally believe they will exert it.  Are we to believe that providers of medical care were charging privately insured patients less than they could have before the cuts in government payment rates?  I am happy to hear arguments on the other side.

Austin Frakt makes a similar argument here, but I'll push back a little bit on this.  My experience is that companies as a whole (or divisions of companies) will often tolerate underperformance in one area as long as they're meeting their overall goals.  Whatever performance measure they use — earnings, return on equity, stock price, etc. — they're frequently satisfied if they meet it for the entire operation.

Strictly speaking, this is irrational.  Businesses should insist that every individual operation be as profitable as possible.  But humans just don't always work that way.  There are only so many hours in the day, only so much bandwidth you can expend on problem areas, it's not always clear how far you can push things, and competitive pressures are different in different areas.  However, if companies fail to meet their broad performance measure, then the pressure builds to start taking a closer look at individual operations, and as a result they might push harder to raise prices in places they haven't before.

Ezra Klein passes along a Lewin Group study that suggests, on average, about a 40% cost shift in one particular area of medical care.  That strikes me as about right: sometimes reduced payments will prompt healthcare providers to push back in other areas, sometimes they won't.  It depends on the bigger picture, which makes it more an empirical question than a theoretical one.  It might also be a place where the long-term effect is quite different from the short or medium-term effect.  More research, please.

Last week, in his first successful piece of legislation, freshman Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) persuaded the Senate to approve a measure banning federal contracts with defense companies that use mandatory binding arbitration clauses in employment contracts that prevent sexual assault victims from suing. The measure not only proves once again that elections matter, but it also comes as a major rebuke to none other than former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The back story: Franken's bill was inspired by Halliburton/KBR contractor Jamie Leigh Jones, who was allegedly raped by her co-workers and held hostage in a shipping container by her employer in Iraq in 2005. Not only did the Justice Department and the military fail to investigate or prosecute her attackers, but as Mother Jones reported back in 2007, Jones was unable to sue the company, either, in no small part thanks to Cheney.

Cheney had been the Halliburton CEO who instituted a company-wide policy to include mandatory binding arbitration clauses in employment contracts. Jones was forced to sign such a contract before heading off to Iraq in 2005 and has spent four years fighting in federal court to void the contract. Jones wasn't the only defense contractor/sexual assault victim prevented from suing because of arbitration clauses.Franken was understandably outraged, and he gave a surprisingly compelling speech from the Senate floor, saying:

The constitution gives everybody the right to due process of law … And today, defense contractors are using fine print in their contracts do deny women like Jamie Leigh Jones their day in court. The victims of rape and discrimination deserve their day in court [and] Congress plainly has the constitutional power to make that happen.

Franken was so persuasive that even a few Republicans got on board; his amendment passed 68 to 30.

Cable News

I remember the first time I happened to read an article about the size of the audience for cable news.  It was years ago, and at first I thought I was reading it wrong.  Were the numbers in millions?  Or indexed in some weird way I didn't understand?  But no.  The audience for cable news throughout the day tends to be in the hundreds of thousands.  In other words, maybe 1% of the country on a good day.  Matt Yglesias comments:

The three networks combined have an aggregate daytime audience of roughly zero. But even though the audience, looked at nationally, amounts to rounding error the networks are hugely popular among the tiny number of people who work in professional politics. Just like traders have CNBC and Bloomberg on in their offices, political operatives are constantly tuned in to what’s happening on cable news. The result is a really bizarre hothouse scenario in which people are basically watching . . . well . . . nothing, but they’re riveted to it. How things “play” on cable news is considered fairly important even though no persuadable voters are watching it. And cable news’ hyper-agitated style starts to infect everyone’s frame of mind, making it extremely difficult for everyone to forget that the networks have huge incentives to massively and systematically overstate the significance of everything that happens.

I guess I'm lucky in a way.  I find TV so distracting that I can't really write when it's on.  So, since I write for a living, that means I never have it on.  It helps keep my blood pressure — well, not low, exactly, but at least I'm not having hourly seizures.

On the other hand, it also warps my view of the political world.  An awful lot of the frenzy in politics is driven by cable news, and I hardly ever see it.  My view of the world is driven mostly by reading the mainstream print press and partly by reading blogs.  And while the blogosphere is doing its best to evolve into a written version of cable news, it's not quite there yet.  So on a day-to-day basis, things actually seem calmer and more sober to me than they really are.

I'm not sure what to do about that.  Probably nothing.  In a way, I'm missing out, but in another way, my view of the world is actually closer to that of ordinary people, who aren't immersed in this hothouse and have no idea that most of the micro-frenzies we write about every day have even happened.  But it's worth noting that this is something that makes politics even more inscrutable to most people than it should be even on its own merits.  Things happen that make no sense, and the reason they make no sense is because the driving force behind them is some passing daily outrage that no one except Wolf Blitzer and Sean Hannity and their few thousand viewers care about.  Unless you're one of those few thousand — and very few of us are — you'll be forever perplexed.  This is, needless to day, probably not a great idea in a liberal democracy.

The Christmas wars are officially off and running. The latest attack comes from the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based right-wing Christian group that has successfully boycotted various companies they deem too friendly to gays and too hostile to Christians. The newest target of its ire? The Gap, a company that has officially declined to use the word "Christmas" in any of its holiday promotions this year. The AFA apparently thinks this is real blasphemy and is urging its members and supporters to boycott The Gap and its affiliates, Banana Republic and Old Navy. They write: 

We want you to stand with us and other Christians in proclaiming that Christmas is special, not just any winter holiday. And the gift buying that Americans do for one another is because of Christmas. People don't exchange gifts on Thanksgiving or New Year's Day.

As part of its campaign, AFA is urging its supporters to don buttons that read "God's Gift: Merry Christmas" to show their support for Christmas. Naturally, the buttons can be procured from AFA. A "suggested donation" of $55 will get you 100 of them. However futile such campaigns may seem, the tiny AFA has actually been fairly successful in many of these boycotts. Three years ago, the group successfully convinced Sears to back off its commitment to nondenominational advertising. This year, Sears is going whole hog on the birth of Christ. AFA notes approvingly on its website that Sears is even offering a "Christmas Club." AFA doesn't seem to mind that Sears has launched the club even before Halloween. Those sorts of complaints will apparently be left to the atheists.

 

Barack Obama, the Fed, Hitler, Marxism, the government seizing control of health care, ACORN. Somehow all of this came together at a town hall meeting held in Tavares, Florida, on Monday night by Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fl.), when dozens of Teabaggers, those rightwing activists associated with the so-called Tea Party movement, showed up to slam Grayson and vent their anger at a political world—that is, their version of it.

Two weeks ago, Grayson argued on the House floor that Republicans' health care plan amounted to "don't get sick," and if you do, "die quickly." Grayson quickly became a hero for Democrats, and a target for GOPers. He later explained that he was being facetious, but the dozens of protesters outside this event were not the least bit amused. And despite the Beltway blather, it wasn't really Grayson's comments that had the protesters fired up. They had been mad long before Grayson said what he said.

Jason Hoyt, Jim Jones, and Tom Tillison, three of the protesters, each explained that they weren't there to protest Grayson's comments. They were angry about Grayson's support for H.R. 3200, the tri-committee health care reform bill that may soon pass the House of Representatives. All three said they had attended the Glenn Beck- and Fox News-encouraged 9/12 demonstration in Washington, DC last month, before Grayson made his famous speech. 9/12 is sort of the Teabaggers' Woodstock: everyone says they were there, and even though the reasonable crowd estimates were around 70,000, Jones assured me that two million people showed up. (That's just not true.)

Chuck Colley, who said he's new to the Tea Party movement, told me that the President, who he called "Ali Baba," is "ruining this country" by creating problems "so he can invoke more government." Obama "wants to be the Marxist leader of this country," the "Hitler," Colley said.

The rest of the Teabaggers (every protester I spoke to said he was a member of or otherwise affiliated with the "Tea Party Patriots") mostly had gripes that had little to do with Grayson's comments or the actual state of political debate in Washington. Instead, they railed against the usual bogeymen: a government takeover of health care (not happening), Barack Obama (plotting socialist overthrow), and the Federal Reserve (a target they share with Grayson, who has cosponsored a bill to audit the Fed). None of the protesters I spoke with was particularly well informed. Jones didn't appear to know that Grayson wanted to audit the Fed, even as he was telling me that the economic meltdown was the Fed's fault. Hoyt, who brought a cardboard cutout of Grayson to the rally, couldn't say why the cutout had a "Congressman from ACORN" button on its suit pocket. 

Jones, Hoyt, and Tillison each voiced support for Patricia Sullivan, a local Tea Party leader who is running against Grayson. Soon enough, Sullivan was there, too, talking up reporters. "It sounds like someone is off their medicine," she said, referring to Grayson. "[He's] not thinking clearly." Sullivan's congressional run may not have the backing of the Republican establishment, but she clearly has some organizing skills: on her campaign site, Sullivan claims to have organized two 1,000-person tea parties. But there couldn't have been more than 100 protesters, despite a pre-protest "tailgate" that was organized for the time leading up to the Grayson event.

There were counter-protesters. Bob Jenner was sporting a fedora and holding up a sign that said Grayson: n., backbone. While most Tea Partiers were careful about what they said to reporters, they didn't always keep their muttering to themselves. "He's a teacher," one said of Jenner (who is). "That explains his socialist tendencies." Another speculated that something about Jenner (his sign? his hat?) would "be good for target practice." Jenner, who was being interviewed at the time, didn't catch the thinly-veiled threat.

The town hall itself was fairly uneventful. The vast majority of the Teabaggers didn't make it in, and those that did were quickly disarmed by Grayson's stunningly softspoken manner (or perhaps intimidated by his 6'4'' frame and rumors of lycanthropy). Besides, everyone already knew what everybody else thought. They'd settled that outside, with chants and counterchants. "Grayson tells the truth!" the Dems hollered."He lies!" the Tea Partiers would shout back. So while it may have been Alan Grayson's town hall, Joe Wilson was definitely there in spirit.

News from our other blogs and around the web on health and the environment.

Next Stop: AHIP has hopped off the healthcare bandwagon.

Let it Linger: Linger wants you to put a sugary mint into your vagina.

Insurance Double-Cross: AHIP report says premiums may go up as much as $4,000.

Come Together: GOP may be closer to agreeing with Senate climate bill than thought.

Granny Blaming: A NYT piece blames lack of insurance on money-sucking olds.

Copen-bloggin: Denmark wants to have 50% green power by 2025.

Foreign Inspiration: Climate conference-hosting Denmark finds inspiration in Obama.

Chamber of Secrets: Chamber of Commerce's climate position is increasingly outlandish.