Blogs

Santa's Reindeer: Not as Sprightly as They Used to Be

| Wed Dec. 26, 2007 10:16 PM EST

After lugging a sleigh full of Wiis and Hannah Montana dolls across the sky, the reindeer are due for their annual checkup. Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen--otherwise known as Discover, Diners Club, PayPal and Visa--have been pulling increasingly huge loads in recent years, and this year was no exception. On Tuesday MasterCard Advisors reported that US holiday sales were up 3.6 percent from 2006. That our plastic reindeer carried such a heavy load through the blizzard of a mortgage crisis is a testament to the power of Rudolph and his nose of red. But is the Red-Nosed Reindeer running his team into the ground?

What's clear is that consumer debt is taking a red nose dive. This week the AP reviewed financial data from the nation's largest card issuers and found a steep rise in delinquencies among accounts more than 90 days in arrears. Some of the nation's biggest lenders reported the accounts have ballooned more than 50 percent compared to a year ago. Overall, defaults jumped by 18 percent.

Rudolph (and Santa) really are to blame for a lot of this. For most of this year consumers seemed to be coming to their senses. The national savings rate was positive for most of 2007, for the first time in years, but then it jumped back to negative leading up to the holidays. For the time being we're once more following Rudolph back to 1929. His flashing red nose is certainly comforting, but it's also why people used to call him names, and wouldn't let him play in any reindeer games.

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Why the Dems Won't Fix Health Care

| Wed Dec. 26, 2007 6:30 PM EST

As the Democratic presidential candidates' positions on health care policy reform have solidified, the issue of mandates has become increasingly important as it is one of the few differences between the various plans. While the right has towed the free market company line on health care, and while the Democrats' paths differ from the Republicans', the destination is the same: a huge payday for insurance companies. According to Shum Preston of the California Nurses Association (CNA), "Individual mandates are a step backward…Insurance companies support individual mandate plans because they guarantee them more customers, revenues, and influence over medical decision making. What's not for them to like?" Any health care proposal that includes mandates without addressing the problems that corporate health care and insurance companies pose maintains the status quo. Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's plans differ in that Obama's plan doesn't include mandates, while Clinton's does. What remains identical between the two candidates' plans is the desire for universal health insurance, which is not to be mistaken for universal health care. John Edwards' populist message includes a mandate and an option between public and private care, which detractors say will compromise the public option in the end.

Mandates, say Preston, "Force patients to sign up for expensive, wasteful, for-profit insurance products without guaranteeing care or protecting them from cost increases." The CNA and its national wing, the National Nurses Organizing Committee, are a major lobbying force in the health care debate, one of the only organizations pushing for a universal single-payer model.

In a whirlwind past couple of weeks, CNA and NNOC placed advertisements in 10 Iowa newspapers that made national news, went on a two day strike in Northern California, and organized a national protest against the health insurance company Cigna HealthCare, which let a young woman die by refusing to cover her liver transplant. The message they are trying to convey in all of these actions is that the problem with the health care system isn't just that not everyone is covered; it is that the companies that run it succeed financially by denying access and care. Mandated care doesn't solve this problem.

'Get Outta Our Town (Caucus Lament)'

| Wed Dec. 26, 2007 4:37 PM EST

No matter how sick you get of the presidential elections, always remember—the good folks in Iowa have it worse.

"Get out of our town, get off of my phone / Don't wanna to be pushed, don't wanna to be polled." Bravo, sir. (H/T PrezVid)

New Face of Lawsuit Abuse Looks A Lot Like the Old One

| Wed Dec. 26, 2007 2:25 PM EST

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is apparently gearing up for a new round of legislative fights over the nation's civil justice system. The Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform has unveiled a slick new PR campaign to convince Americans that the little guy, and not, say, the enormous corporations that fund the campaign, is at risk of personal disaster at the hands of a greedy trial lawyer. Not surprisingly, the campaign is headlined by the now-famous Chungs, the owners of a D.C. dry cleaners sued for $54 million for losing a man's pants.

The Chamber raised more than $70,000 for the Chungs' legal bills, and has turned them into the poster children that corporate America has been waiting years to find. They are featured prominently in YouTube videos and Internet ads that link to the Chamber-sponsored site I Am Lawsuit Abuse. What happened to the Chungs is tragic and indefensible. It's also extremely rare, and very little of the Chamber's legal "reform" agenda would have prevented it, either.

While the medium is new for the Chamber, the new lawsuit abuse videos consist of the same old corporate propaganda bashing the civil justice system, and most of it is highly misleading. One of the segments features a "victim" that was actually a plaintiff in a lawsuit. Particularly egregious is a video of a Georgia professor who specializes in studying "play." She sweetly contends lawsuits are making children obese because they've taken dangerous playground equipment out of the school yard. The junk food companies that fund the Chamber should be especially pleased with that one.

Hillary, Romney Up in Iowa, We Think

| Wed Dec. 26, 2007 11:12 AM EST

The latest statewide survey in Iowa shows that Hillary Clinton is up five points to 34 percent of voters, with a surging John Edwards at 20 percent and Barack Obama falling into third close behind at 19 percent. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee lost five points, dropping to 23 percent to Mitt Romney's bump up four points to 21 percent.

Worth noting that the American Research Group may not be the bellweather for accurate polling. A little digging shows that the group is backed by New Hampshire pollster Lafell Bennett, and that ARG was widely off the mark in New Hampshire in 2004 when it called a victory for Bush, only to see John McCain take the state by an 18-point margin.

Also, turns out ARG doesn't believe in including cell phone numbers in its random draws, which of course lops off a chunk of Obama supporters. He defended his rationale telling the New Hampshire Business Review that he omits cell phones because mostly young people "don't vote."

Bottom line here is that polls are polls, and while they give us all something to talk about they are by no means the beating pulse of a horserace.

Another Baad, Baad Santa

| Mon Dec. 24, 2007 2:53 PM EST

I didn't want to laugh at this, but in the end, I had to.

Ashton Kutcher and his production company made a far too vulgar, but irresistible, video about a drunk, horny Santa looking for work during the writer's strike. Don't watch this at work, but it's Xmas Eve; if you're at work today, nobody's caring what you're watching.

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Why Not Smoke 'Em Since you Got 'Em?: The "Boys of Satire" Returning to Work Much, Much Too Soon

| Mon Dec. 24, 2007 12:07 PM EST

For an armchair sociologist and culture critic, I'm hilariously wrong about how people will behave.

When I heard that Stewart and Colbert were returning to the air just after the New Year, I had two responses: bafflement and fear. First, my bafflement.

Given the pace, the stress, the monstrous pressure of being funny four nights a week about stuff that had happened only hours before, I'd thought the 'talent' would be secretly thanking the gods for this unplanned vacation from their own success. I assumed that was why they were being so ostentatiously generous with their support of the writers - so they could stay out til spring and the big names could sleep for six months and luxuriate in their ignorance for a change. I pictured Colbert and Stewart showering their gleeful families every morning with confetti made of unread NY Times, then spending the day in their jammies ginning up fake emails from the network brass dissing the writers and threatening their families. Instead, these guys are so desperate to get back on the air, they're willing to humiliate themselves to do so. I know these guys are innately funny, but nightly-broadcast-with-no-help funny? Why on earth are Letterman, Colbert et al so desperate to get back on the air?

Y'all know I love me some satire shows. So much so that, pre-strike, I worried about my boys spiraling into drugs, drinking and sordid sex scandals - VH1 Behind the Music-style - from all the pressure. Turns out that they're as addicted to what they do as we are to watching them do it. I 'spoze I shouldn't be so surprised. God knows I churn out book after book, post after post for far less money and with every chance of being either ignored or excoriated (see: your comments). Wrong again. Note to self: performing is as much an irrestible calling as punditry. Who knew?

Now, my fear. I'd been trying to wean myself off television for a looong time now. With a personality as addictive as mine, It's such a time waster; I want my kids to grow up watching only in moderation, unlike their mother. I'd sooner show you nude, secretly snapped photos of me than tell you what, and how much, I watch. So, once the strike hit, I cravenly made the plunge, knowing I wouldn't miss much this time of year. Smugly, I dragged my 'leventy-seven boxes back to the cable folks. You'd have thought I was donating both kidneys to Iraqi war refugees the way I carried on. No one expected the strike to be over before the end of January by which time I figured I'd have detox'd enough to resist the siren call of Battlestar Galactica, 30 Rock and...never mind. I couldn't wait to lord my cultural ignorance over you lowly TV gawkers at dinner parties - "The Office? What office, I don't understand. Oh. TV. I'm reading Proust" - obnoxious as those wankers who spend a semester abroad (in Canada) and come back pretending to have forgotten English.

I could never have given up TV with late night satire still airing, never.

What the f*&^ am I supposed to do now?

Elephants Get Safe Passage

| Sat Dec. 22, 2007 4:20 PM EST

asia_india_elephant_400h.jpg More than a thousand wild elephants have officially been given safe passage. A wildlife corridor linking two reserves in Karnataka, Southern India, has been handed over by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) to forest officials. WTI reports this is the first time land has been bought by a nonprofit and signed over to the government to protect the habitat of the endangered Asian elephant. "This is a great step forward for elephant conservation in India," says Vivek Menon, Executive Director of WTI and elephant biologist, "and a model I hope other wildlife groups will follow. One of the greatest threats facing Asian elephants today is the shrinking and fragmentation of their habitat. Protecting corridors that link these "inland islands" is vital to ensuring the species' survival." … Happy holidays.

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

Listen Up, Pandas, You Need to Fight

| Sat Dec. 22, 2007 3:59 PM EST

panda01.jpg Scientists in China may use a police dog to teach pandas to fight. This after the first artificially-bred panda released into the wild was apparently killed after a battle with other animals, reports Reuters. The Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Centre plans to have four pandas live with a specially trained police dog or other animals. The pandas would learn how to protect themselves by observing the dog. Five-year-old Xiang Xiang, the world's first artificially bred panda released into the wild, was found dead in the snow early this year after less than 12 months of freedom… Hmm, can we train them to attack bad people too?

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

Missing a Testicle? Say Goodbye to That Tour in Iraq You Were Hoping For

| Sat Dec. 22, 2007 1:59 AM EST

Hey, guess what? The Army isn't just intolerant of gays and transgendered Americans. It appears to object to anyone who has any sexual abnormality, no matter how large or small or completely unrelated to job performance. Here are examples of people who do not meet the official standards in the Army's Standards of Medical Fitness (available here):

Women who experience unusually heavy menstrual bleeding, or bleeding at irregular intervals, or no periods at all.
Women born without a uterus.
In men, "Current absence of one or both testicles, either congenital (752.89) or undescended (752.51) is disqualifying."
And, for both men and women: "History of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as change of sex (P64.5), hermaphroditism, pseudohermaphroditism, or pure gonadal dysgenesis (752.7) or dysfunctional residuals from surgical correction of these conditions is disqualifying."

As Obsidian Wings puts it, "Unless I am very, very wrong about what exactly service in the military involves, I can't see that an undescended testicle would affect a soldier's ability to perform his duties."