Despite the cynicism that life in Washington breeds, I am almost constantly aghast at how many obviously good, non-controversial policy ideas never get made into law. It obviously has something to do with the fact that good, otherwise non-controversial policy ideas often hurt the economic interests of powerful lobbies or constituencies. Of course, if money didn't buy results in Congress, that wouldn't be such a problem. So it goes. (We'll come back to this.)

One of the problems that our health care system faces is the fact that some areas have way too many doctors and specialists, while other areas have too few. Oversupply of doctors, however, doesn't reduce costs in the way you might expect if you know some basic economics. Instead, it increases costs, such that each additional specialist per 100,000 people in a given region increases health care costs per person. That's one reason why Medicare spends so much more per person in New York than it does in, say, Oklahoma. Peter Bach, a doctor and former Medicare adviser, has an idea about how to fix this:

Here is how it would work. Later this year, the agency would set a 2010 target number for each type of specialist in an oversupplied region. Then it would offer to sign up those doctors at a certain payment rate. The starting rate would be, say, $30 per doctor work unit. (Work units are a measurement that Medicare uses to set its rates; each procedure is assigned a specific number of work units.) This is lower than the $36 per work unit that Medicare pays all doctors today. If too few specialists signed up, the rate would go up, and it would keep rising until there were enough doctors for the area.

"Wow, what a good idea," you might be saying. Don't get too excited. This is exactly the kind of idea I was talking about earlier. It sounds all well and good until you realize that it threatens powerful entrenched interests: doctors and hospitals. Both are big political donors. So even though this idea makes intuitive sense, isn't intrinsically "liberal" or "conservative," and would be in the best interests of almost everyone, it will be very hard to make into law. That's your political system, folks.

Nick neatly synthesized Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, noting that the president tossed hard truths at key parties involved in relations between the West and the Muslim world. At CQPolitics.com, I provided my own analysis:

President Barack Obama gave a long speech in Cairo on Thursday morning. He kept it real.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama frequently cited research showing that medical expenses were a contributing factor in 55% of all personal bankruptcies.  A new study says he was wrong. It was actually more than that:

The study found that medical bills, plus related problems such as lost wages for the ill and their caregivers, contributed to 62% of all bankruptcies filed in 2007....Medical insurance isn't much help, either. About 78% of bankruptcy filers burdened by healthcare expenses were insured, according to the survey, to be published in the August issue of the American Journal of Medicine.

....Most people who filed medical-related bankruptcies "were solidly middle class before financial disaster hit," the study says. Two-thirds were homeowners, and most had gone to college.

The study does not suggest that medical expenses were the sole cause for these bankruptcies, but it does identify them as a contributing factor. The increase in such filings occurred despite a 2005 law aimed at making it more difficult for individuals to seek court protection from creditors.

Among bankruptcy filers, those without insurance reported average medical expenses of $26,971.  Those with private insurance reported average medical bills of $17,749.

Seems like big city life is faster, even for the birds. A European survey of songbirds has found that city birds sing louder than their country brethren. City birds tweeted faster, and preferred to sing songs that were shorter in duration than birds from the 'burbs. (Maybe all the urban excitement reduces their attention span?) The study also revealed that songbirds prefer to mate with birds who sing similar songs: so country birds are attracted to the slow, longer, lower-pitched songs, and city birds want a mate who can belt it out high and fast and loud. The scientists have theorized that avians in urban areas sing at a higher pitch to be heard above background noises like traffic and construction. If these street-savvy birds are pushed into the country because of changing climate, though, they may have to change their tune.

Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose 2006 "Macaca" speech turned into the most famous online gotcha video of all time, has resurfaced after a long political quiesence--and, of all places, online. In a new Web video for the American Energy Freedom Center, which he now leads, he replaces a brown-skinned menace with hints of a green one: Climate legislation. The video appears to be the first installment of what Allen describes as monthly "kitchen table talks" in which he'll "tell people the truthful story about America's energy potential."

The American Energy Freedom Center draws upon an oily pedigree. It is a partner group of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and is headed by Robert Bradley Jr., who worked as a public policy director at Enron and a speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay.

So why have these guys turned to Allen? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, before Allen lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was Congress' number 3 recepient of campaign cash from the energy sector . Over his career he raised $1 million from energy companies, including $19,400 from Exxon Mobil. He also brings strong connections to other lawmakers as a former presidential hopeful, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which plays a key role in crafting energy legislation. Moreover, as of 2006 Allen had personally invested somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in energy companies.

In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd trust to sit in my kitchen and tell me how America should "promote the clean, creative, and thoughtful utilization of American energy." But here's his pitch, complete with a nifty lapel pin:

 

Here's a peculiar story from Bloomberg:

Some of the 17 Chinese Uighur Muslims being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will likely be released in the U.S. in an effort to convince other countries to accept prisoners from the detention facility, according to current and former American officials.

Why peculiar?  Because there's not even a smidgen of backup for this claim in the rest of the story, which runs to over a thousand words.  There's one speculative quote from a Bush-era legal advisor and that's it.  Nothing from current American officials at all.  All in all, the story gives no reason to believe that the Obama administration is any closer to releasing any of the Uighurs into the U.S. than it was a month ago.

Still, I'd like it to be true.  So here's hoping there's more to this piece than meets the eye.

It is conceivable that the materials used to construct parts of the Airbus 330 might have been a factor in the loss of Air France 447. While we may never know for sure whether structural issues contributed to the plane’s plunge into the Atlantic, the crash raises urgent questions that reach beyond even the untimely deaths of 228 people: Composite aircraft parts figure more and more in the future of commerical aviation, with the two biggest manufacturers preparing to roll out high-composite-content jets next year.

These carbon-fiber composites–basically, a form of plastic–are lighter than the aluminum they replace, which stands to cut down signficantly on fuel costs. But any weaknesses in parts built of composite may be impossible to detect during routine ground inspections–at least without costly testing methods that the manufacturers insist are unnecessary. 

If critics of the new high-composite-content aircraft are right about their risks, then we may once again be facing a situation where the corporate profits of the aerospace and airline industries are placed before public safety, while the government declines to intervene.

This is not the stuff of conspiracy theories. Warnings about the possible safety risks of composite materials in aircraft construction have been issued by a number of engineers and experts, and by no less reliable a source than the Canadian Transportation Safety Board (CTSB). A 2007 article in the New Scientist discusses a report by the CTSB that reveals problems with composite materials used in the Airbus, and their role in a 2005 midair crisis. Most troubling is the report’s conclusion that such structural problems often remain undetected using current methods of safety testing.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, there's a fascinating account of how in 2008 Clemson University climbed from 38 to 22 in U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings. The post quotes Catherine Watt, Clemson's director of institutional research, who was surprisingly forthcoming at the annual forum of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta, noting that "We have gotten really good press. We have walked the fine line between illegal, unethical, and really interesting.”

According to Watt, Clemson raised its ranking with the following ethically murky tactics:

 

Last week, copyright guru Lawrence Lessig's Change Congress organization, which hopes to reduce the influence of money in politics, accused Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) of undermining Americans' faith in politics by creating the appearance of corruption.

What exactly did the Senator do wrong? Well, Nelson accepted over $2 million in campaign cash from the insurance industry. He also happened to embrace the industry's position on health care reform, declaring his opposition to giving Americans the option of a government-run health care plan. (Nelson has since hedged a bit.)