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Having the Right Enemies

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 8:13 PM EDT
Richard Scott is rich, conservative, and hates universal healthcare.  He's all about "patients' rights," you see, and intends to spend a big chunk of his fortune making sure people know it.  But if he intends to play the role of shady financier to the anti-reform crowd — well, that's fine by me:

Once lauded for building Columbia/HCA into the largest health care company in the world, Mr. Scott was ousted by his own board of directors in 1997 amid the nation’s biggest health care fraud scandal.

....“He’s a great symbol from our point of view,” said Richard J. Kirsch, the national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now. “We cannot have a better first person to attack health care reform than someone who ran a company that ripped off the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Conservative health care activists, while glad to have a potential ally willing to spend $5 million out of his own pocket, are not fully embracing Mr. Scott....“I just don’t understand why he would be a messenger people would listen to,” said Charles N. Kahn III, who was a senior executive with the insurance industry group that ran the “Harry & Louise” advertisements credited with helping to kill the Clinton plan 15 years ago but who is working for a deal now. “I don’t think people are waiting to hear from him.”

....Mr. Scott has said his sole policy interest is to see to it that whatever overhaul Mr. Obama and Congress consider does not move the country toward a socialized system and away from what he calls his four pillars of reform: “choice, competition, accountability and personal responsibility.”

Ah, yes: competition and accountability.  Let's talk about that, shall we?  Or, rather, let's outsource it to our very own Blue Girl, who just happens to have worked at HCA back when they were bilking the taxpayers out of millions of dollars.  If you want to know how they did it, she's got the story right here.  It was simple!  And it'll remind you of Enron, IndyMac, AIG, and all the other bright lights of competition and accountability in corporate America that we've come to know and hate.

And for a real zeitgeist blast, there's also this: Scott steadfastly maintains that he did nothing wrong, and for his current venture he's hired the same PR firm that represented Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.  Central casting could hardly do better.  The wingers really know how to pick 'em, don't they?

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Bruno Trailer Is Here (If You're Over 17)

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 7:17 PM EDT
I've been covering Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat for a while now, from reports that his Austrian fashionista character Bruno was terrorizing midwesterners to unconfirmed but overwhelmingly positive early reviews of the film. But now, via HuffPo, we have something real: the actual, official trailer for the actual, official movie, which you can watch above. Needless to say, it is Not Safe For Work, and you have to enter your age to even make it play—the film was given a preliminary rating of NC-17, because, you know, references to gay sexuality are way worse than elaborate torture. Don't get me started. Anyway, the preview is perhaps even more raucous than one could have imagined, with practically every scene a jaw-dropping, and potentially dangerous, act of queer trickery. I'd say Baron Cohen should get a MacArthur genius grant, but I'm sure he's going to make a zillion dollars anyway. Bruno is out July 10.

Great Moments in Diplomacy

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 4:52 PM EDT
McClatchy's Steven Thomma reports that things were tense at the G-20 meeting until Barack Obama stepped in to save the day.  Listen and learn, grasshopper:

Heading into the summit's final hour [] it appeared that the group would fail to reach a consensus, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed to have the G-20 spotlight offending tax havens based on a list published Thursday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and China objected, largely because it doesn't belong to the OECD.

That was when Obama, long a champion of ending or curbing tax havens, decided to float a compromise and pulled Sarkozy aside....Obama proposed that the G-20 merely "take note" of the OECD list, thus opening the door to implicit but not direct endorsement of that list.

....Obama then met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Sarkozy in a corner of the summit meeting room, as the other world leaders waited. Upon the trio's reaching agreement, the G-20 summit then agreed to note the list of tax havens.

I guess I shouldn't make fun of this stuff.  The world is what it is.  But seriously: today's big ruckus was about whether to "spotlight" tax havens or to merely "take note" of them?  Jeebus.

Of course, this is all based on the word of an anonymous White House official who's got a vested interest in making Obama look like a diplomatic powerhouse.  And this business of China objecting to an OECD list because it doesn't belong to the OECD is almost certainly bogus.  (More likely it's because Macao and Hong Kong are tax havens and China isn't keen on having them cleaned up.)  So who knows if this story is even true?

But it sounds disturbingly plausible.  Of such stuff are diplomatic communiqués made.

Coolest G-20 Leaders Forming a Band?

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 4:07 PM EDT
Anybody else notice the similarity between the arrangement of four of our world leaders at the G-20 conference in this picture, and a famous shot of one of the world's greatest bands? Because we did. I'm trying to think of a joke about "Obama met the queen and now he wants to be in Queen," but it's not happening. So, what instrument do you think each of them plays? Hu Jintao's got the Freddy Mercury position, but he just doesn't seem like he's got lead singer charisma. Sorry, but it's true. Belusconi, on the other hand, thinks he's in the Monkees. You're supposed to try and look cool, dude! Medvedev is so the drummer. By the way, how pissed is Sarkozy he didn't get in this shot? That'll teach him to be late to dinner. Although five members does make your musical combo much more likely to be a "boy band," so maybe he got a "non, merci" from the clearly-intent-on-musical-integrity Medvedev? Our own Dave Gilson didn't see "rock band" in this picture, he saw Japanese Photo Booth. He has a point. Check out his enhanced version of the shot after the jump.

Senate Introduces Mining Reform Bill

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:30 PM EDT
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.

Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.

In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.

In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.

Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."

The Great Paper Heist

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:16 PM EDT

Chris Hayes of the Nation has a nice scoop. Apparently, the paper industry has been bilking the federal government in a massive, massive way. Chris explains:

In 2005 Congress passed, and George W. Bush signed, the $244 billion transportation bill. It included a variety of tax credits for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass. But it also included a fifty-cent-a-gallon credit for the use of fuel mixtures that combined "alternative fuel" with a "taxable fuel" such as diesel or gasoline.

Enter the paper industry. Since the 1930s the overwhelming majority of paper mills have employed what's called the kraft process to produce paper. Here's how it works. Wood chips are cooked in a chemical solution to separate the cellulose fibers, which are used to make paper, from the other organic material in wood. The remaining liquid, a sludge containing lignin (the structural glue that binds plant cells together), is called black liquor. Because it's so rich in carbon, black liquor is a good fuel; the kraft process uses the black liquor to produce the heat and energy necessary to transform pulp into paper. It's a neat, efficient process that's cost-effective without any government subsidy....

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it....

Get that? Paper companies are adding an unnecessary and extremely harmful fossil fuel to their manufacturing processes in order to take advantage of a federal subsidy that was intended to help the environment. Hayes says the 10 largest paper companies will get as much as $8 billion this year from this little racket they are running. Hopefully, with enough attention to this story, the federal government can shut it down.

Photo by flickr user toastiest.

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Web 2.0 Expo Gets Recessionified

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 2:57 PM EDT

The theme of this week's Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Silicon Valley's annual geek family reunion qua idea show and tell, is "The Power of Less." Here in the Texas-sized Moscone conference center (hike toward the panel just over the hallway horizon!), recession is definitely the new green.

Many of this year's talks are grim soup lines doling out tips on how to hang on to a slippery website dollar among fickle, fickle users, or wring a few pennies out of Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media enterprise.

And forget the Wii-filled, bass-thumping blogger room and the eco-idealist exhibit swag of 2008. Nothing but coffee urns and industrious laptop-tappers here in the media room this year, people. Thank God.

One app I'm liking today: Gawkk, which bills itself as a 'Twitter for videos,' "where members discover, share, and discuss videos from around the web with their friends by answering the question: What are you watching?"

Coming Friday: etsy! Threadless! And more counter-intuitive hipster business models that seem to work better than AIG's.

The Catholic Church, AIDS, Condoms, and Specious Arguments

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 2:08 PM EDT

In a post Ross Douthaut called The AIDS Libel, he employs some dubious rhetoric in defense of the church's insistence on abstinence, vice condoms, in the face of an African epidemic. First he demands proof that African Catholics have higher infection rates. OK, to save time, I'll give him that one. But not this one:

...consider that Benedict XVI is the head of an international institution that does as much to fight disease and poverty as any NGO in the world. The Church runs hospitals, clinics, and schools; it channels hundred of millions of dollars in donations from the developed world to the wretched of the earth; it supports thousands upon thousands of priests, nuns and laypeople who work in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the world. And it does so based on the same premises—an attempt to be faithful to the commandments of Jesus Christ—that undergird the Pope's insistence on preaching chastity, rather than promoting prophylactics. There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that's perfectly understandable. But unless he's willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I'd prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for "massive death and suffering" among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn't willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you're committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

Let's begin with this: Where does the church get the bazillions it dispenses as largesse around the world? From individuals and from the incredible wealth it's amassed over time based on its influence. It didn't earn that money; it was given that money. And that bankroll rightly belongs to the world and should be spent there.

When the Pope gives up his mansions and jewel encrusted hand towels, I'll be impressed with his munificence. The church has a duty to the world to do the good it does. That's why we give it money (tax exemption, anyone?). To make the world better.

Next: Because the Catholic Church conducts large scale charity, it cannot be criticized?

Is Homophobia Just Narcissism?

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks so:

Bigotry is the heaping of one man's insecurity on to another. Sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, anti-immigrantism, really all come from the same place--cowardice. In his history of lynching, Phillip Dray notes that mob violence against black men wasn't simply about keeping black men in their place--it was about keeping white women in their place. Lynching peaked as white women went to work outside the home in greater numbers, developing their own financial power base. White men, afraid that they couldn't compete with their women, would cowardly resort to lynching. I am not saying that the anti-gay marriage crowd is a lynch mob. But in tying opposition to the sexual revolution what you see is, beyond a fear of gay marriage, a fear for marriage itself. A fear that their way of life can't compete in these new times.  It's ridiculous, of course. But bigotry always is.

DuBois wrote about racism as "the psychological wages of whiteness". Black equality would cost white people, and, of course, it did. You can't kill or rape blacks with impunity anymore, you can't make them sit in the back of the bus or stop them from drinking from 'your' fountain.  So whites definitely lost things, both tangible and intangible, with the coming of equality.  Of course, whites never had a right to those things. That's why the racial hierarchy had to be established, with all the attendant bennies and burdens nicely justified (whites are smart and work harder, etc.)

So, I think Coates is on to something with this notion - heteros lose one of the few advantages left to those born on the lucky side of any hierarchy, in this case, the sexuality continuum.  Homophobes are manic about losing the right to have someone to openly look down on. To consider innately inferior. Which is convenient because their unworthiness then allows you to collect those psychological wages like straights only in the military, straights only in the classroom, straights only in public office (just imagine an openly gay Prez), straights only with the right to marry and all the bennies that come with it. Notice how quickly the psychological wages become all too tangible.

But this is an issue, like race, whose time has come. Enjoy the last few years left of discriminating against gays 'cuz them days is almost gone.

It's hard out there for a bigot. Homophobia is on a short list of acceptable bigotries. But it's fading fast.

Quote of the Day - 4.2.09

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 1:43 PM EDT
From the Pew News IQ survey, on partisan differences in knowledge of current events:

Across the 12 knowledge items tested, the biggest gap between Democrats and Republicans comes over awareness of the current level of the Dow.

That's a shocker, isn't it?

In fairness, Pew reports that Republicans, men, old people, college graduates, and the upper middle class are more knowledgable in general than Democrats, women, young people, high school dropouts, and poor people.  So it's not just the Dow.  But lest you get too impressed with the overall scores on this multiple choice survey, Steve Benen points out that "the same Pew Research Center report found that 11% of Americans still think President Obama is a Muslim, which is practically unchanged since the presidential campaign. About one-fifth of all white evangelical Protestants continue to buy into this obvious falsehood."

Take the test here if you dare.  I expect all my readers to score 100%.