The World Press Photo winners were announced today! One of the most prestigious photojournalism awards, this year's top prize went to Anthony Suau, for his photograph of an armed police officer moving through a foreclosed house. He shot the photo in March 2008 for Time.

Anthony Suau for TimeAnthony Suau for Time

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, on Sarah Palin:

"She was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall."

Indeed.  Which is why I can hardly wait for her to talk herself into running again in 2012.

If you think it was hard to push out the $787 billion stimulus package, try birthing a child without health care or living with HPV. Though the package bodes well for environmentalists, in order to lure Republicans—none of whom have signed on yet—Obama stripped it of a handful of important provisions on women, STD prevention, and children's services.

Specifically, Obama cut $25 million to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces and $150 million to the Violence Against Women Act at the suggestion of Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ben Nelson (D-NE). Also stripped from the stimulus package was a section that would allow states to cover family planning services—without first obtaining a government waiver, as is the current practice—for low-income women who are ineligible for Medicaid. A Congressional Budget Office report estimates that this bill would have saved the country $200 million over five years and $700 million over the next ten.

STDs were apparently another sore spot for Republicans, so Obama ended up taking out $335 million for STD prevention. According to the CDC, STDs cost the health care system $15.3 billion per year, and we're expected to spend $12.3 billion on HIV/AIDS-related care in 2009. You do the math.

Update: Three Republican Senators—Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—supported the bill.

Why Gregg?

WHY GREGG?....I don't know what really happened to cause Judd Gregg to withdraw his nomination as Commerce Secretary.  It's absurd for him to say that he hadn't really thought through the consequences of the stimulus package, which was by far the biggest story in Washington at the time he was nominated, and he claims the census kerfuffle was trivial.  So what was it?

Who knows?  But I'm sort of curious about the other side of this nomination too.  What was Obama thinking?  It's one thing to nominate a moderate conservative like Ray LaHood, or pragmatists like Jim Jones and Robert Gates, but Gregg is a full-blown dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative.  He's not a crank, but he's not within light years of finding common ground with a liberal Democratic president either.

So why did Obama nominate him?  Does he just not care about the Commerce Department?  Or did he really think that somehow this could work out?  The more I think about it, the stranger it seems.

When the stimulus package hits President Obama's desk, it will include a provision banning bailed-out banks from replacing laid-off American workers with skilled foreigners.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed the ban, which would last two years. Their proposal came a few weeks after the Associated Press reported banks that had received $150 billion in bailout money requested work visas for nearly 22,000 foreign workers during the last six years, a move Sanders called "absurd."


Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini argue in the Washington Post today that the U.S. banking system is insolvent to the tune of $400 billion, and nationalization is the only answer.  Here's their advice:

First, and this is by far the toughest step, determine which banks are insolvent. Geithner's stress test would be helpful here. The government should start with the big banks that have outside debt, and it must determine which are solvent and which aren't in one fell swoop to avoid panic. Otherwise, bringing down one big bank will start an immediate run on the equity and long-term debt of the others. It will be a rough ride, but the regulators must stay strong. Second, immediately nationalize insolvent institutions....Third, once an institution is taken over, separate its assets into good and bad ones....Fourth, merge all the remaining bad assets into one enterprise. ....Basically, we're all Swedes now. We have used all our bullets, and the boogeyman is still coming. Let's pull out the bazooka and be done with it.

I expect this to become a pretty mainstream opinion over the next few weeks, and once Geithner's stress testing is finished he's going to come under tremendous pressure to make the results public and do exactly what Richardson and Roubini suggest.  Pretty soon, even America's bankers will be capitalists, whether they like it or not.

The hot pink press packet that arrived at the office promised that "Your boyfriend doesn't need to know." What doesn't your boyfriend need to know? Well, that you eat chocolate, of course. That's between you and your "chocolate finger," as the marketing copy termed the two Twix-like bars being rolled out in the US by Mars under the name "Fling." (The candy's been out in Australia since 2007.)

In addition to tapping into the under-utilized market of paranoid heterosexual women whose eating habits are monitored by their boyfriends (it's a well-documented fact that lesbians hate candy), Mars has shrewdly incorporated sparkles into an advertising campaign that relies heavily on women's love for the color pink. (Fling's website is a tidal wave of the color, punctuated with silhouettes of short-skirted, high-heeled Fling aficionados, one of whom appears to have a handbag falling right out of her vagina.) While it's a given that women are more likely to buy things when they are pink, such as tools and cars, sparkles are oft ignored. It's not just Fling's website that sparkles, but the bar itself. "The shimmer," reads the FAQ on Fling's website, "is actually a [sic] FDA approved mineral called Mica, that shimmers and is used occasionally by specialty chocolatiers to add a unique and attractive sparkle to gourmet chocolate." Popularly known as Vitamin S (for Sparkle), Mica is also used in makeup, and in toothpaste, where it acts as a mild abrasive that helps whiten teeth. Yum!

Predictably, one of the hot selling points for the Fling bar is that "at under 85 calories per finger, it's slim, but not skinny. Indulgent but not greedy. Naughty but nice." In other words, the candy perfectly straddles the contradictions of the angel/whore dilemma in a way its intended female consumers never will. The bars were even promoted in Australia with a 2007 television commercial in which a princess bids a morning adieu to her prince in what can only be read as a post-one-night-stand kiss-off, before shutting the door and gobbling up a Fling. "Forever is overrated," warbles a flock of cartoon birds. While it's tempting to embrace the commercial as a sign of society's acceptance of sexually empowered women, it's even more tempting to wonder why the only reason one ever sees a woman on-screen go unpunished for her libidinous ways is when someone is trying to sell women something. The commercial hasn't been attached to any of the US marketing, but the ad copy is just as suggestive. The PR packages that went out to media outlets contained sheer T-shirts that read "Try It In Public," equating the act of women consuming sweets in front of other people with being as taboo as committing sex acts in front of them. Couple this with the oppressive pinkness of the campaign, and one is left wondering when marketers will figure out that in order to make women buy things, they do not have to, literally, shove sparkles down their throats.
The Department of Defense has come too rely too much on private contractors to fulfill core missions without adequate consideration of which functions are "inherently governmental," Gene Dodaro, GAO's acting comptroller, has told Congress. Testifying Wednesday before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, headed by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, Dodaro reiterated a request from GAO--first made in 2006--that lawmakers compel the Pentagon to consider how it hires and deploys contractors. The amount of defense spending devoted to paying private companies to perform an wide array of tasks (support services, intelligence, translation, security, etc.) has doubled since 2003.

While we are all to eager to blame contractors for fraud and corruption, Dodaro emphasized that a large part of the problem stems from a shortage of Pentagon contract specialists and incompetence among those already on the job.

Thimerosal Update

THIMEROSAL UPDATE....The vaccine/autism community has made great hay out of a single case last year in which the government conceded that a child with a pre-existing mitochondrial disorder may have been "aggravated" by a series of shots.  It was only one of thousands of cases in federal court, though, so how will they react now that the main test cases have been decided?

In a major setback for the fight to link autism to vaccines, a special federal court ruled Thursday that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and vaccines that contained a mercury-based preservative were not connected to the autism that developed in three children. The decisions in the cases [] could potentially sink the claims of several hundred other families in an omnibus proceeding that believe the MMR vaccine alone or in combination with vaccines containing the preservative thimerosal caused their children's autism, said Curtis Webb, a lawyer for the Hazlehurst family. ...."I concluded the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners' contentions," George Hastings Jr. wrote in the Cedillo opinion, similar to the others. "The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced and far more persuasive than the petitioners' experts."

Needless to say, this won't convince anyone who doesn't want to be convinced.  "There's no denying what happens to your child when you see it firsthand," said Rick Rollens, who has an autistic son and co-founded the UC Davis MIND Institute.  And: "Rollens and others said these verdicts wouldn't make parents stop questioning the safety of vaccines, especially when the parents see changes in their children right after vaccination."

No doubt.  Time for the rest of us to move on, though.

Safe Havens

SAFE HAVENS....Via Felix Salmon, here's some interesting news: Moody's has decided that not all AAA sovereign debt is created equal.    Here's how things shake out:
  • AAA-Worst: Ireland, Spain
  • AAA-Middle: United States, UK
  • AAA-Best: Germany, France, Canada, Scandinavia

I wonder what it would take for the United States to be downgraded into the Ireland/Spain category?