I'm glad to see that things are back to normal:

Wall Street, helped by improving profits, is on track to pay employees as much as, or even more than, it did in the pre-crisis days. So far this year, the top six U.S. banks have set aside $74 billion to pay their employees, up from $60 billion in the corresponding period last year.

....Some analysts and investors had especially sharp words for Wall Street rival Morgan Stanley, which reported Wednesday that it had set aside $6 billion so far this year for compensation expenses even as it recorded its third straight quarterly loss. In reporting its second-quarter results, Morgan Stanley said it lost $1.26 billion, after accounting for one-time charges including an $850 million expense related to paying the government back after its bailout. Still, the company set aside $3.9 billion in compensation expenses, representing 72 percent of its revenue for the quarter.

As long as bankers are paid obscene salaries and bonuses, all is right with the world.  I'm sure we'll all rest easier tonight knowing this.

Recently, MoJo published a story about the GOP's hackneyed attempts to crack the web.

Their latest straw-grasp: A YouTube video called "Just Tax," set to Lady Gaga's hit "Just Dance." According to The Guardian, the parody of Obama (sample lyric: "This shouldn't happen, man/Go on and ask Japan") was recently featured at a Republican party meeting as a way to attract young people.

The fact that this got play at an official gathering reveals just how desperate the party has become. Then again, maybe it's not such a bad idea. After all, if Lady Gaga + YouTube + "tax and spend liberals" won't appeal to potential young converts…what will?

Watch below:

Half an hour into tonight's press conference Barack Obama has answered a grand total of three questions.  This is not a good performance.  He really needs to pick up the pace and make his answers crisper and more comprehensible.

UPDATE: Aside from the rambling nature of his replies, I don't think Obama has been good on substance either.  His opening statement had a little bit of good stuff about healthcare security, but he's spent the vast bulk of his time on deficits and cost cutting.  That's just not a good sales job.

UPDATE 2: All done.  I'm curious to hear what other people thought, but this really struck me as nowhere near his usual performance.  Obama avoided giving direct answers, rambled a lot, kept interrupting himself with asides, and didn't explain things in terms that ordinary viewers were likely to understand.  He's supposed to be the communicator-in-chief, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people came away more confused than they were when they tuned in.  Bottom line: There were bits and pieces that were fine, but overall I'd give it a C-.  Other comments?

Even though AIDS likely came to us from chimpanzees, chimps don't develop AIDS. Or so we thought.

New evidence shows that chimpanzees infected with SIV—simian immunodeficiency virus, the precursor to HIV-1—do contract and die from AIDS. The paper appears in Nature.

The chimps at the heart of the study live at Gombe National Park, Tanzania. This population has survived the ravages of the modern world thanks to 50 years of dedicated oversight from Jane Goodall and colleagues.

Among the findings from researchers working in Gombe:

  • Infected chimps are 10-16 times more likely to die than uninfected chimps
  • Infected females are less likely to give birth
  • Infants born to infected mothers are unlikely to survive
  • The virus is transmitted sexually and through the milk of infected mothers
  • In the course of the nine year study, 10-20 percent of the 94 chimpanzees were infected at any given time

The finding opens up new opportunities for research. Goodall says: "We hope this will lead to a better understanding of the virus that will benefit both humans and chimpanzees."

The virus affects chimpanzees in similar ways to humans and although there is no practical treatment for the chimps, it appears the SIV infection is not as pathogenic as HIV-1 in humans. The Gombe chimps have maintained their community size despite the disease.

Well, it's back again. The zombie meme that just won't stay dead.

We love a good conspiracy as much as the next investigative magazine—especially one that involves Big Pharma, the FDA, and the CDC. But as we've extensively reported here, the vaccines = autism meme might just be the most damaging medical myth of the decade. Not only is it based on false "science" that's tearing apart the families of sick children, it's unintentionally sickening thousands of others.

If you don't watch Oprah or read HuffPo, the theory goes like this. An ethylmercury-based preservative thimerosal (which was removed from all vaccines in the early 2000s) is retained by young children who then exhibit symptoms of mercury toxicity, the true cause of autism. Alternately, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines, when given in tandem as MMR (the only form of the vaccine currently available) overwhelms the systems of sensitive children, causing intestinal distress, which causes autism. Sound odd?

Putting aside for just a moment the enormous weight of scientific evidence against these theories and the sound discrediting of virtually every doctor or scientist who has ever supported them, the MMR-causes-autism theory is downright dangerous.

Anti-MMR crusaders like Jenny McCarthy and longtime partner Jim Carrey insist they're not anti-vaccine. But their position is dangerously close, for two reasons.

Bending the Curve

Brad DeLong tries to figure out why the Congressional Budget Office has been so pessimistic about the potential for healthcare reform to reduce long-term costs:

The problem, I think, is that the CBO has a category for cost control but no category for getting system incentives right. It is a budget office, after all, not a philosopher-king office. The problem, however, is that it is the only arbiter out there. And there appear to be a lot of members of congress who think controlling costs = getting system incentives right.

I don't think we should care much about costs: it might be in the future we want to spend a lot on health; it might be that in the future we develop magic treatments and so want to spend a lot less. If we get the system incentives right, then whatever we spend on health will turn out to be the right thing to do.

There are useful things we can do that will help control costs.  Better IT, for example.  Lower administrative overhead.  Comparative effectiveness research.  For the most part, though, these are one-shot deals.  They're worth doing, but you only get to do them once.  And once they're done, costs keep going up.  They go up from a lower base, but they still go up.

Then, as Brad says, there are things that help align incentives better and (maybe, possibly) bend the curve of rising healthcare costs downward.  Moderate copays, for example, can help reduce unnecessary doctor visits.  Cheap (or free) access to preventive medicine can keep chronic ailments from turning into expensive acute crises.  Paying doctors straight salaries probably promotes more efficient use of expensive services than either capitation or fee-for-service. Universal coverage can prevent overuse of expensive emergency room services.  A more sensible malpractice regime might reduce defensive medicine (and more fairly compensate victims of genuine malpractice in the bargain).

But in the end, both as individuals and as a society, we're going to spend as much on healthcare as we feel like spending.  And why not?  We should spend our incomes on whatever we value the most, and for a lot of us that's healthcare.  If that turns out to be 30% of GDP, then it's 30% of GDP.

And that's what will eventually bend the curve in healthcare costs: when we all finally decide that we're spending enough.  Whether we're doing it as individuals, as employees with healthcare insurance, or via tax dollars, we'll get serious about controlling costs when we decide that costs have gotten too high.  Until that happens, though, well-designed incentives may make things more efficient but won't appreciably reduce the rise in total spending.  I don't think politicians can afford to say that in public, but it's probably true.

Geoengineering received a big boost this week. The American Meteorological Society released a major statement Monday on the topic, making these recommendations:

1. Enhanced research on the scientific and technological potential for geoengineering the climate system, including research on intended and unintended environmental responses.
2. Coordinated study of historical, ethical, legal, and social implications of geoengineering that integrates international, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational issues and perspectives and includes lessons from past efforts to modify weather and climate.
3. Development and analysis of policy options to promote transparency and international cooperation in exploring geoengineering options along with restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate system.

The AMS is a respected scientific body here in the US, and a statement of this kind certainly gives credence to the possibility of a major, well-funded, possibly federal geoengineering research program. It also comes on the heels of a National Academy of Sciences workshop in which leading experts debated the merits of such a research program.

Some geoengineering critics (and there are plenty of them) say investment in this kind of research will only distract from mitigation efforts. I disagree, and now, so does AMS. And I think the Society responds well to that argument with this point:

Geoengineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation, but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts. The potential to help society cope with climate change and the risks of adverse consequences imply a need for adequate research, appropriate regulation, and transparent deliberation.

Some devil's advocacy for people who think Jose Padilla was treated fairly: Former Long Island car wash employee Bryant Neal Vinas, 26, has been charged with participating in a rocket attack on US forces in Afghanistan. According to the charges, he's a dangerous terrorist who trained with Al Qaeda and passed on information about the Long Island Rail Road and the New York City transit system. He is apparently cooperating with authorities.

If torture is such an effective tool, why didn't we torture Vinas? How do we know he's not holding something back? Padilla, another American citizen who was accused of conspiring with terrorists, had his mind essentially "destroyed" by sensory deprivation and solitary confinement. Padilla was held without a lawyer for nearly two years. He was allegedly forced to take LSD and PCP as "truth serums." Does Vinas deserve better treatment than Padilla? If so, why? If Padilla did deserve to be treated as well as Vinas, why wasn't he? Isn't Vinas just as much an "enemy combatant" as Padilla was? Why does he deserve rights that Padilla wasn't afforded? Who makes these decisions? Why do they seem so arbitrary?

Rich Miller of Bloomberg reports:

Global investors give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke top marks for combating the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and overwhelmingly favor his reappointment amid optimism that the world economy is on the mend.

Well, I don't favor it — and this has nothing to do with whether Bernanke has done a good job or not.  Just look at a couple of the quotes Miller dug up.  "He's the best, maybe around the world," says one guy.  "If he weren't renominated, it could have potentially very serious and severe repercussions on the stock market and the economy," says another.  Spare me.

Look: Bernanke isn't indispensable, any more than Alan Greenspan or Paul Volcker or William McChesney Martin were.  But everyone thought they were indispensable at the time, and that's a dangerous way to think about these guys.  Putting Fed chairmen on a pedestal, as the financial community does routinely, breeds both complacency and insularity.  In the long run, it's bad for business.

Wall Street needs to calm down and learn that being Fed chairman for a few years doesn't make someone superhuman.  The world won't end if Bernanke is replaced by one of the other dozen or so highly qualified candidates available, and Obama should take the chance to demonstrate this when he chooses Bernanke's replacement.

Earlier today, I wondered whether Sen. Sherrod Brown's mention of working through August and Nancy Pelosi's promise to do the same meant the Democrats were going to try playing the vacation card against the Republicans. It's a great political tool: if your opponents want to delay something (health care, in this instance) until after recess, express your willingness to work through vacation and paint your opponents as lazy. Congressional majorities do it all the time. If that really is the Dems' new strategy, Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake is helping to set them up:

The Republicans, the Blue Dogs and Joe Lieberman want to stall passing a health care bill, because they know that if members go back to their districts in August it gives the health insurance lobby a chance to hammer them with millions in advertising. There's one word for that:  unacceptable.  The House should keep working until they pass a health reform bill - health care is more important than vacation.

FDL has a petition asking the House to stay in session to pass health reform. They've also put together some facts about what three weeks without health care means for Americans: 

  • 143,250 people will lose their health insurance coverage
  • 53,507 people will file for bankruptcy because they can't pay their medical bills
  • 1,265 people will die because they lack coverage

Of course, even if a health care bill is passed, many of the most important reforms won't take affect for years. But talking about the costs of inaction is still important, because they're real. Not passing a health care bill doesn't mean things will stay the same. It means things will get worse. That's probably what President Obama is going to focus on in his press conference tonight: convincing Americans that the status quo is unacceptable. If he can convince Americans that reform has to happen now, he'll have half the battle won. Then he'll just have to convince people that his reforms are the right ones.