Blogs

Harvard Reduces Undergrad Price Tag by One-Third to One-Half

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 3:51 PM EST

dunster.jpg It's really nice to see Harvard putting it's $35 billion endowment to good use. This is a huge move:

Harvard University sweetened its financial aid for middle class and upper middle-class families, responding to criticism that elite colleges have become unaffordable for ordinary Americans.
The Ivy League school said undergraduates whose families earn up to $180,000 would be asked to pay 10% or less of their incomes annually for the cost of Harvard, which this year totals $45,456. The university said the initiative would reduce the cost of attending the college by one-third to one-half, making the price comparable to in-state tuition and fees at top public universities.
For example, the university said a family making $120,000 will be asked to pay about $12,000 for a child to attend Harvard College, compared with more than $19,000 under current student-aid policies. A family making $180,000 would pay $18,000, down from $30,000.
At lower income levels, families would pay a smaller percentage of income, declining to zero at $60,000 a year. Harvard said it would eliminate loans from all financial-aid packages and no longer consider home equity in calculating eligibility.
"We want all students who might dream of a Harvard education to know that it is a realistic and affordable option," said Harvard President Drew Faust.

If other schools who are traditionally one step behind Harvard in admissions and financial aid policies, like Yale, follow suit, we could have a higher education revolution on our hands. Bravo.

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Comeback Fever: Led Zeppelin vs. Portishead

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 2:46 PM EST

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It's a big (extended) weekend for fans of long-lost bands, with highly-anticipated performances from two wildly different UK legends (although it suddenly occurs to me that their music often shares similarly sludgy tempos which could possibly engender an amusing mash-up). First up, on Friday night Bristol's reclusive trip-hop combo Portishead played their first live show in a decade at a place called, erm, Butlins Minehead, apparently some sort of "resort" or something on England's west coast. Butlins' website, with its big-eyed teddy bear mascot, could not be a greater contrast with the bleak sounds of the jazzy trio, and the UK Guardian's review found the venue disappointing, with its dinner options limited to Pizza Hut and Burger King. Not surprisingly, they also found the performance underwhelming, with the band sounding "nervous" and new material "hard to get a handle on." The paper admitted that the band "caught fire" during the classics like "Sour Times" and "Numb," but perhaps it's a sign of how desperate people are for anything Portisheaddy when they say that the "highlight" of the show was notoriously dramatic singer Beth Gibbons laughing off a mistimed entry into a new song. Like, hooray, they didn't have an emotional breakdown? The UK Telegraph was more generous, calling Gibbons' voice "undiminished" and saying the new material seemed to be "moving in wider directions."

Led Zeppelin's return is set for only minutes from now and the band have already made news with their backstage demands, and they're not of the "no green M&Ms" variety: the band's rider requested only tea, coffee and an ironing board, although the promoters said they'd give them a bottle of wine anyway. Details of the band's rehearsal have also hit the press, with a fan who was supposedly at the soundcheck posting on the band's official forum that they heard "Good Times/Bad Times," "Ramble On" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" at the rehearsal, and that "Page was on fire – completely awe inspiring!!" NME will be live-blogging the show with a song-by-song account, if you're obsessing and weren't lucky enough to with the ticket lottery.

So, My Bloody Valentine, any reunion plans?

New U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Crack Penalties: A Campaign Issue?

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 1:03 PM EST

Call it a trend. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court gave judges the OK to issue more lenient sentences to drug dealers than those mandated in the official federal sentencing guidelines. Last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the disparity in prison sentences given for possession of crack versus powder cocaine, a problem that has had a disproportionate impact on African-American defendants. Tomorrow, the commission will vote on whether that change ought to apply retroactively. If it says yes, nearly 20,000 prison inmates stand to have their sentences reduced.

All of this is good news for the small-time drug addicts who've been given excessive prison sentences for piddly little drug offenses. It's bad news, though, for Democrats, as it's about to turn crime into a major campaign issue, and it's not their strong suit. No surprise, then, that the biggest opponents of retroactively reducing drug sentences, according to the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, are the Bush Justice Department, Republicans on the House judiciary committee, and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Yes, Hillary has thrown her lot in with the law and order types in the GOP, largely on the advice, apparently, of her pollster Mark Penn. Penn told The Politico last week that former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani was already using the change in sentencing to bash the other Democratic candidates, all of whom support retroactivity.

Clinton Rolls the Pork Barrel

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 11:51 AM EST

Steny Hoyer isn't the only prominent Democrat with a questionable commitment (to put it charitably) to earmark reform. Senator Clinton also seems to place pork above principles.

But we already knew that.

Insurance Industry Now Thinks Texas Needs More Litigation

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 10:59 AM EST

In 2003, Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed state legislators to cap pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice lawsuits at extremely low levels. The insurance industry lobbied heavily for the measure, helping to promote a false vision of Texas as a "judicial hellhole," where doctors were fleeing the state over an "epidemic" of frivolous lawsuits. Since then, malpractice lawsuits have plummeted.

Now, though, the insurance industry is wondering if its campaign worked too well—not because malpractice victims can't get justice (which they can't) but because tort reform is cutting into insurance company profits. Defense lawyer Gary Schumann told a group of insurance execs recently that tort reform had worked so well in Texas that judges were trying cases that might otherwise go to mediation just to stay busy. Not only that, but Texas nursing homes (among the worst in the nation) have become so unconcerned about getting sued that many have stopped buying private liability insurance.

Schumann said he was worried about the industry's future. "We want a little bit of litigation out there, don't we? We want a little bit of risk. We need risk or we're all out of business. … We'll see what happens but tort reform has worked. I just hope for all of our sakes it hasn't worked too well."

The Dems' Uninspiring Record on Earmarks

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 10:31 AM EST

To continue our trend of Democrats playing the Washington game instead of standing for what's right:

Even as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer has joined in steps to clean up pork-barrel spending, the Maryland congressman has tucked $96 million worth of pet projects into next year's federal budget, including $450,000 for a campaign donor's foundation.
Hoyer (D) is one of the top 10 earmarkers in the House for 2008, based on budget requests in bills so far, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent watchdog group.

The Post article from which this comes does not identify the other nine lawmakers in the top 10, and the Taxpayers for Common Sense website doesn't have the list either. So it could be all Republicans, who knows? But I'm guessing it isn't.

Hoyer is a good example of how there isn't a consensus on earmarks among Democrats. When they took power in 2006, they weren't all gripped by a zeal to cleanse Washington of money's corrupting power.

Hoyer defends his earmarks, saying they fund such worthy causes as cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and supporting local military bases. For 2008, he has requested millions of dollars to equip police in his district, help schools and improve roads and the Southern Maryland bus network... "We made very substantial progress in making sure that earmarks, which I support, are transparent," Hoyer said in an interview.

That's what Hoyer supports—incremental change. Don't eliminate earmarks, just shine a little light on them. Oh, and reduce their numbers somewhat.

Republicans had come under fire as earmarks tripled during their 12 years of congressional control, to nearly 13,000 in 2006. Some projects, such as a $223 million bridge to a sparsely populated Alaskan island -- dubbed a "bridge to nowhere" -- stirred public ridicule.
Since assuming control of Congress, Democrats have taken some important steps to clean up the practice, watchdog groups say. Lawmakers are now required to disclose their earmarks. And House and Senate leaders have agreed to cut earmark spending by 40 percent in the 2008 budget bills.

Better than the last guy, but still not good enough.

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What Oprah and Hillary Have in Common - and What They Do Not

| Mon Dec. 10, 2007 9:48 AM EST

When he was campaigning for president in 1992, Bill Clinton had a stock line in his stump speech:

My wife, Hillary, gave me a book that says, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Speaking at a rally for Barack Obama on Saturday, Oprah Winfrey declared,

If we continued to do the same things over and over and over again, I know that you get the same results.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was selling himself as the candidate of change. This time around, Obama is trying to corner that market, with Hillary Clinton promising the best of both worlds: change and experience. In an auditorium filled with signs proclaiming, "Chage You Can Believe In" (get the dig at Hillary?), Winfrey pronounced Obama the genuine agent of change and not-too-indirectly slammed Hillary Clinton:

I challenge you to see through those people who try and convince you that experience with politics as usual is more valuable than wisdom won from years of serving people outside the walls of Washington, D.C.

In other words, don't buy Clinton's most powerful argument. While pitching Obama, Winfrey is unselling Clinton. And the Clinton people certainly are not going to do what politicos usually do in such a circumstance: attack the messenger. After all, who wants to get into a tussle with Oprah? The question, of course, is, will Winfrey, who is campaigning with Obama in several early states, really help Obama? No one will know until January 3. But certainly none of this is likely to hurt the candidate of more change.

Congress, Including Leading Dems, Briefed on Torture as Early as 2002

| Sun Dec. 9, 2007 11:57 AM EST

This kind of makes me nauseous.

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.
[snip]

Green Energy the Next Frontier

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 10:40 PM EST

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Great piece by Declan Butler in Nature on the new venture capitalism in Silicon Valley. Green energy, folks. California gold. Butler reports how the venture-capital industry in the US spent $2.6 billion on clean-energy technologies in the first three-quarters of this year. Up from $1.8 billion in 2006, and $533 million in 2005. Google joined the game last week, committing millions more to solar, wind and geothermal, seeking a technology patch to make renewables cheaper than coal. A few weeks earlier, Al Gore's London-based Generation Investment Management partnered with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park—the green-energy investors that nurtured Amazon, Google and Genentech—to fund global climate solutions.

For the fast-moving entrepreneurs of the [Silicon] [V]alley… the next frontier is the roughly US$6-trillion energy market, where the dinosaurs of power-generation utilities have traditionally invested a pittance in research and development. "Venture capital is exactly what we need to try new things outside the bounds of what the traditional energy companies think is worth doing," says Vinod Khosla, a veteran entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Microsystems and now heads Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, one of the most prominent clean-energy venture-capital firms. "There is almost no technology risk-taking in any of the energy companies." Khosla predicts that within five years there will be a green form of electricity that is cheaper than coal, and cleaner fuels that are cheaper than oil.

Butler also notes that although the US lags far behind Europe's leaders, Denmark and Germany, in renewables, its venture-capital investments in clean tech now more than double those in Europe.

California scooped $726.2 million of this year's US clean-tech venture funding, followed by Massachusetts ($292.6 million) and Texas ($149.4 million). Almost $1 billion of US investment went abroad, including a $200-million investment in Brazil's Brazilian Renewable Energy, which produces ethanol, and a $118-million investment in China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Company, which makes photovoltaic solar systems.

This is the reason I refuse to surrender all hope.

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

Bye-Bye Cookie

| Fri Dec. 7, 2007 6:49 PM EST

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Reuters reports that Howard "Cookie" Krongard has decided to resign as the State Department's inspector general. The decision comes after a disastrous appearance last month before Rep. Henry Waxman's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where Krongard's testimony invited charges of perjury. Krongard, who had allegedly interfered in an arms smuggling investigation targeting Blackwater USA, initially denied that his brother Buzzy Krongard (a former high-ranking CIA official) was a member of that company's advisory board. He later changed his tune after reaching Buzzy by phone during a break in the hearing.

It's unclear why Cookie would have lied. But if by doing so he was trying to protect his brother, the favor went unreturned when reporters reached Buzzy for comment: He explained that he'd told Cookie about his Blackwater affiliation weeks before the hearing. Seeing as Cookie's congressional testimony had been under oath, the revelation may have opened him up to prosecution. So much for brotherly love.

I spoke with several congressional staffers last week, who suggested that both Cookie and Buzzy would be called to appear before Waxman's committee to account for Cookie's bizarre testimony. But now that Cookie has thrown in the towel, it's unclear if the hearing will take place. According to a statement released this afternoon by Waxman's office, "Mr. Krongard's decision removes an enormous distraction from the Inspector General's office and will allow the office to focus on its important oversight responsibilities. The Committee will certainly take this new development into account."

Whatever happens, the lack of affection between the brothers Krongard appears to be indicative of larger family dramas. The Washington Post reported in September that Cookie's son and daughter-in-law, Kenneth and Kristin Krongard, had filed a restraining order to get him to stop sending "unprofessional and highly offensive" emails, in which he threatened that they'd be "put out on the street" if they lost a lawsuit he had brought against them. Cookie filed suit last year, alleging that the couple had defaulted on a $320,000 home loan. Although they paid back the loan in full after the suit's filing, Cookie is pressing his case, demanding interest and other penalties, as well as reimbursement of at least $114,000 in legal fees. Does Krongard feel guilty about suing his son's family? Who can say for sure, but the tone of this August missive points to no. "If you are willing to put your wife and children's future in jeopardy, that's your business," he wrote. What a guy.