Inflation

INFLATION....The consumer price index fell last month, but this was mostly due to falling oil prices, so it's no big deal. It's a good thing, in fact. Remove oil prices and inflation was up very slightly, perhaps 0.1% or so.

That's worryingly close to zero, and that's a much bigger deal, especially since we're still in the early days of this recession. If prices fall any further, we're in deflation territory, and that would be dismal indeed. So as much as I dislike the auto bailout on its merits, this would not be a good time to let GM go under. Nor is it a good time to cavil about federal stimulus spending or to force state governments to slash expenditures. So tell me again: how many days are there until January 20th? It would be nice to have an actual president again.

China Jumps To Hybrid

277211.jpg China's first mass-produced hybrid electric car hit the market today. The car is made by BYD Auto and backed by Warren Buffett who owns 9.9 percent of the company. The F3DM (if you say so, C-3PO) can be charged from powerpoints at home or at electric car charging stations. That's a first for mass produced. The hybrid runs 62 miles on a full battery and costs under $22,000 dollars.

BYD Auto says it doesn't expect the F3DM will succeed with Chinese customers initially because of the high price, reports AFP. Instead the company is focusing on sales to company fleets. The strategy is to leapfrog past traditional cars—where Chinese technology lags badly—straight to hybrids.

Smart strategy. Remind me again why exactly we're bailing out our own loser car companies? BYD already specialized in producing rechargeable batteries and only started making cars in 2003 when it bought a bankrupt state-owned car company. Since then it's beaten Toyota and General Motors to the punch as those companies won't launch home-chargeable hybrids cars before 2009 and 2010 respectively. Can't we leapfrog past the traditional car companies straight to hyperdrive mass transit? Can't we, as the Chinese say, transform the current mass chaos into mass opportunity?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Question of the Day

QUESTION OF THE DAY....From professor Henry Farrell, responding to Robert Samuelson's latest maunderings in the Washington Post:

Should people pretend to take this sort of horseshit seriously?

Well? Should they? Argument for the affirmative: if you don't respond, horseshit takes on a life of its own because no one ever knocked it down. It may be an unwelcome task, but someone has to do it. Argument for the negative: Serious debate merely gives horseshit a stature it doesn't deserve. Laughing at it is much more effective.

Anyway, Samuelson's argument in today's column is that poor people have powerful advocates just like rich people, and he then suggests that the techno-wonks at the CBPP have the same kind of clout as, say, the Club for Growth. This is indeed laughable, but Larry Bartels tells us that it's even more laughable than you think:

I know of two systematic attempts to measure the relative influence of affluent, middle-class, and poor people on government policy. One is in the next-to-last chapter of Unequal Democracy, where senators' roll call votes are moderately strongly affected by the preferences of high-income constituents, less strongly affected by the preferences of middle-income constituents, and totally unaffected by the preferences of low-income constituents. That's the more optimistic view. My Princeton colleague Marty Gilens (in a 2005 article in Public Opinion Quarterly and a book-in-progress) has a parallel analysis focusing on aggregate poilcy shifts over two decades. He also finds no discernible impact of low-income preferences, but argues that middle-class people also get ignored when they happen to disagree with rich people.

Italics mine. So: mockery or wonkery? Which works better? Leave your vote in comments.

Dark Cloud Watch

DARK CLOUD WATCH....AP reports on Barack Obama's timetable for releasing a review of his staff's internal conversations with the comically corrupt Rod Blagojevich:

Spokesman Dan Pfeiffer [] said the office won't release details of its review until the week of Dec. 22 at the request of prosecutors "in order not to impede their investigation of the governor."

That's Christmas week, when few people will be paying attention and when Obama plans to be celebrating the holiday in Hawaii.

Those crafty Obamaites! They somehow got legendary straight arrow Patrick Fitzgerald to request that they release their report when no one would be paying attention.

Now, I don't have any evidence for this, but I'm pretty sure the Obama team must have gotten to Fitzgerald somehow. There's going to be a dark cloud of suspicion over his head until he accounts for this.

No Royalty, Please

NO ROYALTY, PLEASE....From the New York Times today:

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of an American political dynasty, has decided to pursue the United States Senate seat being vacated by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a person told of her decision said on Monday....Ms. Kennedy will ask Gov. David A. Paterson of New York to consider her for the appointment, according to the person told of her decision.

For what it's worth, I'd like to join the almost unanimous blogosphere consensus that Paterson should choose someone else. Rich and famous people already have a huge leg up when it comes to winning political office, but at least they still have to run and win. Appointing them instead so they can avoid the whole messy business of engaging in a campaign is just a little too Habsburgian for my taste.

Needless to say, I've got nothing against Kennedy. But appointing her to the Senate just isn't the right thing to do.

Johnny Marr Quashes Smiths Reunion Rumor

mojo-photo-oldsmiths.jpgOr, "William, It Was Really Nothing." Ahem. Reports emerged late last week that The Smiths were possibly maybe "on the verge" of a reunion, after lead singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr "settled their differences." The UK Telegraph was reporting that "industry sources believe that a comeback could be imminent." While just about every other band who ever broke up has already reunited, long-suffering Smiths fans likely didn't get their hopes up (mostly because Smiths fans don't really have any hopes to get up) and our abject cynicism and unfettered pessimism was proven right once again, as Marr has forcefully denied the rumors of a reunion to NME:

Marr issued a statement to NME.COM saying that rumours floating around that the band were reuniting were "untrue". He declared: "The stories circulating about a Smiths reunion are, as usual, untrue." Marr added he was committed to his current band The Cribs. "I'm currently very excited about writing and recording with The Cribs for a new album to be released next summer and we're playing shows in February, so going back in time isn't in my plans," he said.

Considering your musical promiscuousness post-Smiths, I'm sure The Cribs totally believe you.

Paranoia at Big Coal Headquarters (Video)

There's an awful lot that is crazy about this speech by Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, the fourth largest coal company in the country, and member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors. He says "greeniacs" are trying to take over the country. He says that people who disagree with his retrograde views on global warming and energy (climate change doesn't exist, duh) are "communists" and "atheists." He compares the editors of a newspaper that has criticized him to Osama bin Laden.

But my favorite part is when Blankenship suggests that somehow third world countries have got themselves in their unfortunate states by trying too hard to conserve energy and live sustainably.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China and India in the last year or two, and I can tell you, that's the first stage. You go from having your own car to carpooling to, you know, riding the bus to mass transit. You eventually get to where you're walking. And your apartments go from being nice apartments and homes with your own bathroom, to sharing bathrooms and kitchens with four families.

Whatever you say, chief. Here are the highlights; they're an excellent view into the thinking of the far Right. More video is over at the NRDC.

Always Look Under the Hood

ALWAYS LOOK UNDER THE HOOD....Some good advice from Dean Baker. When a news article tells you that industrial production fell "less than expected," check to see if that's only because the previous month's numbers have been revised downward:

There are often large revisions to prior months' data. A large fall from an upward revision can leave us in a much better place than a small fall from a downward revision. If the new information in the report is that things were much worse last month than we had thought, we have limited grounds to celebrate when we say that they have not worsened too much further in the current month.

The data show that November's manufacturing output is down 1.4 percent from October's level, which was in turn revised down by 0.5 percent from the previously reported level. Over the last three months, manufacturing output has fallen at a 17.8 percent annual rate. That is not good news.

No, it sure doesn't sound like good news to me. On the other hand, if we let GM go under we'll all be pining away for the days of a mere 17.8% decline.

For background on the Iraqi journalist who on Sunday hurled two shoes at George W. Bush during a press conference in Iraq, there's this November 18, 2007 report from Reporters Without Borders:

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep concern today about the disappearance of Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi of satellite TV station Al-Baghdadiyah, who was kidnapped in central Baghdad on 16 November. The news agency reports of his abduction offer little reason for optimism.
"The kidnapping of a journalist in Iraq is often a prelude to his murder, and we have every reason to fear for Zaidi's life," the press freedom organisation said. "This war has resulted in massive bloodshed for both the Iraqi and foreign media. Never before in history have journalists suffered so much in a war. We urge all the security forces present in Baghdad to work together to find Zaidi. And we extend our support to his family and colleagues."
The Associated Press quoted an Al-Baghdadiyah editor as saying Zaidi went missing in central Baghdad while on his way to work. The editor said that, when Zaidi failed to turn up, a colleague called his mobile. A strange voice answered and said: "Forget Muntadhar."

Primary Care

PRIMARY CARE....The LA Times writes today about Tanyech Walford, a primary care doctor who finally gave up her practice because she couldn't make a living at it:

Walford is not alone in her struggle. Relatively low earnings, rising overhead and overwhelming patient loads are sending veteran primary care physicians into early retirement and driving medical students into better-paying specialties, creating what the New England Journal of Medicine recently called a crisis.

....Much of the problem lies in an endangered business model: the one- or two-physician general practice....Small general practices afford doctors autonomy to practice medicine as they see fit and can produce strong doctor-patient bonds. But these physicians have little or no clout to leverage better payments with insurers; they have no economy of scale, which makes overhead more burdensome.

Across the country, Pauline Chen writes in the New York Times about the general scope of the problem in primary care:

The news got worse in September, when The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that just 2 percent of graduating medical students are choosing to enter general internal medicine. The students surveyed were concerned in part by what they perceived to be a more difficult personal and professional lifestyle, compared with other fields. They felt that the paperwork and charting required of primary care physicians were more onerous, and they were not eager to care for the chronically ill in a health care system that focuses on acute care.

....The Physicians' Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports physicians' work with patients, last month published the results of a survey on current medical practice conditions in the United States. Some 12,000 doctors responded, the vast majority of whom were primary care physicians.

Nearly half of them said they planned in the next three years to reduce the number of patients they see or to stop practicing altogether....Only one-third felt they had the time to fully communicate with and to treat all patients, and 60 percent felt that paperwork demands resulted in less time spent with patients.

Italics mine. This is the result of our current Rube Goldberg medical system. Private insurers pay lip service to primary care physicians, but demand massive amounts of paperwork from them at the same time that they've reduced their payments for office visits so much that GPs can't survive on fewer than 30 patients per day. And with a patient load like that, you simply can't afford to spend more than a few minutes per person. This creates a vicious cycle in which both doctors and patients become increasingly stressed and increasingly less satisfied.

In fairness, it's not as if Medicare pays princely sums for office visits either, so this is hardly a problem that magically goes away just by installing a different funding mechanism. But it might be a start. More GPS, fewer dermatologists, please.