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Edwards and Obama Draw Contrasts on Health Care Reform

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 12:19 PM EST

In my most recent article on John Edwards, I wondered if Edwards' strident anti-corporate message, courageous and admirable as it may be, would turn off voters in the general election.

Yesterday, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek answered with an emphatic yes.

How many 20th Century American presidents have been elected on a populist platform? That would be zero... millions of Americans still work for corporations or aspire to do so and bashing them wholesale is a loser politically. It works sometimes in Democratic primaries with a heavy labor vote (though not for Dick Gephardt). But not in general elections. The last two Democrats elected president—Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992—also campaigned during recessions. Both were smart enough to reject populism in favor of a responsive but upbeat message.

Alter also discusses the differences Obama and Edwards have on health care. Obama says that he will initiate health care reform by sitting down at a big table with patients' advocates, health care economists, insurance companies, and other interested parties. Everyone would have the right to state their priorities, but the meeting would be CSPAN and the American people would know who is motivated by greed, who is negotiating in bad faith, and who is working against the interests of everyday Americans. Alter writes, "having triumphed over the drug and insurance companies in the court of public opinion, the legislative victories will follow."

Edwards says it is "a fantasy" to expect insurance companies and drug companies to negotiate their power away at a table such as Obama's. The only real option, Edwards says, is to exclude these corporate interests from the discussion and "take" their power away. How he plans on doing that is never quite articulated.

It's worth pointing out that Edwards and Obama have managed to have this debate without going negative. The debate over which approach to health care reform is less realistic continues, but gently...

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Clinton Campaign Disguises Negative Flier As Product of Edwards Campaign

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 11:54 AM EST

Iowans don't like negative attacks. Time and again, when I was in Iowa chatting with attendees at Republican and Democratic events, I was told by voters that the "mudslinging" that goes on "in Washington" wasn't of any concern to them. They were less likely to vote for a candidate if he or she went negative, even if that candidate had a legitimate critique of his or her rivals.

So if you're Hillary Clinton and you want to point out that Barack Obama's health care proposal isn't as strong as yours, what can you do? How about putting out a flier that looks like it was created by the John Edwards campaign?

Would the New OPEN Government Act Really Open Anything?

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 10:44 AM EST

After the House on Tuesday passed the OPEN Government Act to bolster the Freedom of Information Act and sent the bill to George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed,

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has a vital purpose: to inform American citizens about the conduct of their government. However, the Bush Administration has greatly expanded the veil of secrecy and undermined the Freedom of Information Act. The Administration's actions run counter to the values of our democracy, the public's right to know, and the ability of American citizens to hold their government accountable. The passage of the OPEN Government Act takes a first step toward strengthening FOIA and restoring transparency and accountability to our government.

FOIA has long been broken--even before Bush. It sometimes takes years--even a decade--to get a FOIA request fulfilled. And, of course, much information is often withheld. I've had the State Department respond to requests nine years after I've submitted them--and long after I had any need for the documents. And recently I asked the Department of Interior for records related to a contract covering computer services provided to Vice President Dick Cheney's office by a company run by a fellow who paid more than $1 million in bribes to Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. (Don't ask why the Interior Department was involved.) I was told the material would be withheld under one of FOIA's many elastic exemptions. So will the new legislation make any real difference?

For an answer, I turned to Steven Aftergood, who produces Secrecy News. He says:

The new legislation makes several valuable procedural changes. It will increase pressure on agencies to answer FOIA requests in weeks rather than years. It will make it easier for requesters to track FOIA requests and to win fee waivers. It will strengthen the position of those requesters who litigate denials of their requests.
On the other hand, it does not alter agencies' ability to withhold information, which is of course the heart of the process. Whatever was withheld from requesters previously can still be withheld. So even if the law is faithfully implemented, it could just mean speedier denials.

Well, at least I won't have to wait so long to be turned down.

Thanks to Bush, America is Both Rubber and Glue

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 10:13 AM EST

From CNN: Torture House, Mass Graves Found in Iraq.

Given our own "torture houses," the tapes of which we've illegally (not to mention, immorally) erased, how exactly is an American to process such an article? I feel myself going all Derrida and po-mo: that article is clearly meant to stimulate feelings of shock, awe, horror, disbelief etc... But how can an American legitimately muster such feelings when we, too, now are torturers and propogandists?

I read this with a clanging sense of cognitive dissonance; one the one hand - how dare they, the Iraqis, commit such overtly heinous crimes against humanity? Still, can't be too surprised; isn't that just like them? Isn't that why America gave it's ok to invade, those lowlifes?

Simultaneously, I have to think - how dare we, Americans, ask how they dare when we dare every day, apparently since two weeks after the Bushies took office?

Exactly who, and what, are we anymore?

Party Ben's Top 10 (Plus!) Songs of 2007

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 9:22 PM EST

mojo-photo-rifftoptenweek.jpgOr "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Feist." Things have moved around a bit since my half-year list back in July, but the idea is the same: 2007, if anything, was a year of Big Songs. Big triumphant chords, big tragic emotions, big sing-along choruses—this was not the year for quiet ballads. Take "Umbrella," a shoe-in at #1; its genre-crushing intensity and live-remix vocal indulgences made it inescapable, but it was its big-hearted spirit that made it an anthem. Oddly enough, as I look down my list, a lot of these songs have similar emotional landscapes, if not geneses: even LCD Soundsystem seems to be offering up an umbrella for his friends to stand under. There's a theory (maybe?) that pop music gets better as the government gets more right-wing and screwed-up (compare the brilliance of early-80s electro-pop to mid-90s 3rd-tier pseudo-grunge), and maybe you could say these songs all have a fighting spirit, whether the enemies are the boys who "start a war" or the ones who try and make you go to rehab.

Also, three of my Top 11 are in triple-time. Now that's weird.

Here's my Top Ten complete with videos, and then #s 11-20, just cause there were a lot of good runners-up.

Rotenberg Center Blasted By Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Media After A Prankster Gets Employees to "Accidentally" Shock Kids 100 Times

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 8:48 PM EST

SO07_79x101.jpg In our September/October issue, we published a 9,000 word story, "School of Shock: Inside the taxpayer-funded program that treats American kids like enemy combatants," the result of a year-long investigation into the Rotenberg Educational Center by Jennifer Gonnerman: "Located in Canton, Massachusetts, the facility, which calls itself a "special needs school," takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab."

Gonnerman's story, which was accompanied by hundreds of pages of court testimony, a photo essay, and statements by experts decrying the methods of its founder, Dr. Matthew Israel, prompted legislators in Massachusetts to renew their efforts to shut the facility down, assemblymen in New York to reopen an investigation of the facility, and new D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to investigate why the city's special ed program was sending its kids all the way to Canton. In addition, readers of our story organized themselves through our website's comments boards. One mother went to the Rotenberg Center to see what would befall her autistic child if she enrolled him there; students from Brandeis organized themselves to investigate and protest the Rotenberg Center.school_of_shock_2_580x720.jpg

In the last few days, developments on this story have been fast and furious. D.C. School Chancellor Michele Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty have promised to have all nine D.C. kids still at Rotenberg pulled from the program—after the local Washington angle on our story was reported out by the D.C. Examiner, the ever incompetent and corrupt D.C. special ed program told Rhee it would remove them, only to, you know, not. Heads supposedly will roll, dear God, please let one be special ed director Marla Oakes.

But the real news is that Massachusetts just released another damning report [PDF] on the Rotenberg Center, this one detailing an incident where a former patient had called into one of the Center's residential facilities and, posing as an administrator, told an orderly to wake two students, restrain and shock them, which they did, delivering 29 (!!) shocks to one student and 77 (!!!) to the other. Via the Patriot Ledger:

According to the report, as the two students protested that they were innocent and howled in pain, other student residents awoke in the night and shouted in protest, the report said. They told staff members the calls were a prank, but were told to go back to bed.
The two students complained they were in pain and asked to see a nurse, to no immediate avail. One, who screamed that his leg was "killing him,'' was found during a hospital examination the next day to have first-degree burn from the skin shocks. The other told staff members his blood pressure was racing and he felt as though he was about to have a stroke.
The report concludes that one employee "was physically abusive toward residents,'' while six others were negligent in their duties.

Here's a WNBC-NY news report of the incident, including a statement from Governor Elliot Spitzer saying that the practices at the Rotenberg Center are "wrong, and should be ended," and promising to pull NY kids from the program if allowed "the capacity to do so." (Right now, New York City is stymied from doing just that by an injunction filed by some parents of kids at the Rotenberg Center.)

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"Don't Tase Me, Bro!" Named Most Memorable Quote Of 2007

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 8:08 PM EST

Fred R. Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, has determined that the plea, "Don't tase me, bro!" was the most memorable quotation of the year. The plea was made by University of Florida student Andrew Meyer on Sept. 17 as he was assaulted with a taser on the occasion of Sen. John Kerry's speech at the university.

Getting the number two nod was the remark made by the Miss Teen America contest's Lauren Upton, Miss Teen South Carolina, after she was asked why 20% of Americans cannot locate the U.S. on a map: "I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and Iraq and everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for us."

Anything that comes after that is anticlimactic, but here's number three: ""In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," a remark made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And--in case you're wondering where it is, coming in fourth was Don Imus's "That's some nappy-headed hos there."

Here is the rest of the top ten:

5. "I don't recall," which was said repeatedly by former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during questioning at a congressional hearing about the firing of U.S. attorneys.

6. "There's only three things he (Republican presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani) mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11." Bad grammar aside, this was the handiwork of Sen. Josephy Biden.

7. "I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating." said Dick Cheney of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

8. "(I have) a wide stance when going to the bathroom." This is probably my personal favorite, and was, of course, Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig's explanation of why his foot touched that of an undercover policeman in a men's room. The Logo Channel has given this wonderful quotation a place in its gay dictionary. Usage: "Sheila, Larry's just not into you--he has a wide stance."

9. Sen. Biden makes the list a second time, discussing Sen. Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

10. And finally, former president Jimmy Carter: "I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history."

I wish there were a few specialized categories. For instance, Chris Matthews could probably have the top ten misogynistic quotations all on his own, with remarks like these:

"[Sen. Clinton gave a] barn-burner speech, which is harder to give for a woman; it can grate on some men when they listen to it--fingernails on a blackboard."

"[House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi will] have to do the good fight with the president over issues such as the minimum wage and prescription drugs. How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?"

"[Sen. Clinton's] "clapping (at a victory event). I don't get it. It's just not appealing;" It's Chinese or something."

And let's not forget that George W. Bush is still at it:

"All of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice."

"I heard somebody say, 'Where's (Nelson) Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead. Because Saddam killed all the Mandelas." (This came as a surprise, I'm sure, to Mr. Mandela.)

I'm honored to be here with the eternal general of the United States, mi amigo Alberto Gonzales."

"One of my concerns is that the health care not be as good as it can possibly be."

"The best way to defeat the totalitarian of hate is with an ideology of hope -- an ideology of hate --excuse me--with an ideology of hope."

Bamboo Makes Better Bridges

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 7:58 PM EST

dn13107-1_400.jpg Bridges of bamboo could provide a cheaper, more environmentally sustainable engineering solution than steel. New Scientist reports that a prototype bridge has been built in China using horizontal beams made from a bamboo composite. The 33-foot span proved strong enough to support even heavy trucks. It was also cheaper to build and more environmentally friendly to make than steel or concrete, says developer Yan Xiao of the University of Southern California and Hunan University.

Pound-for-pound, bamboo is stronger than steel when stretched and more robust than concrete when compressed. Stalks mature in a few years, rather than decades for trees, so more can be harvested from the same amount of land. Plus bamboo is a grass that is harvested like mowing a lawn, leaving the roots intact to regrow. Whereas cement production releases 5-10% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, bamboo soaks it up as it grows. All this suggests a more sustainable engineering solution in China, says New Scientist... Sure, for China, but why not everywhere?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

U.K.'s Gordon Brown Plans to Pressure China, India

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 5:56 PM EST

china-pollution140x147.jpgThe U.N. climate change conference in Bali may be over, but China and India aren't off the hook yet. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he will press China and India for further support fighting climate change during visits the two countries next month.

China, for one, needs the pressure because, while the country faces grave ecological consequences for its rapid industrialization, the country's environmental enforcement agency, SEPA, has historically been pretty hands off.

Hopefully that's changing somewhat. This year, SEPA rejected at least $91 billion in new factories and enterprises that failed to meet environmental standards—about 30% of all projects submitted to the agency. SEPA is also resorting to publicly shaming polluting corporations, which will hopefully prove effective as fines for polluting are so low that companies often opt to pay them instead of upgrading equipment.

Fred Thompson: (Hilariously) Lazy as Charged

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 5:39 PM EST

I'm not going to bother block quoting this Politico article. It is so hilarious and so damaging to Fred Thompson, you're just going to have to read it yourself.

All of the rumors about Thompson—lazy, uninterested in campaigning—appear to be 100 percent true.

Update: Thompson is either delusional or trying to spin his way to the presidency. Despite the evidence seen at the link above, he told CNN that he has the fire in the belly to win in Iowa. "I've had my mojo the whole time." Right...