Mojo - April 2009

Equal Opportunity Flu in an Ageist World

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 11:48 PM PDT

One of the unusual things about the current swine flu virus, compared with the strains that cause our yearly seasonal flu outbreaks, is that it doesn’t seem to discriminate on the basis of age. That may change as the pandemic develops, but it may not: The massive 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is also known for killing across all age groups.

There is, nonetheless, an age angle to this story, and it has to do with those garden-variety annual influenza outbreaks, and how the medical, political, and media establishments have handled them. The great majority of deaths caused each and every year by these “ordinary” flu viruses--some 36,000 on average in the United States alone, according to the CDC--are of people over 65 years old.  Some years it’s more, and some years it’s fewer: During the 1990s, the number of deaths ranged from 17,000 to 54,000. But every year, tens of thousands of old folk succumb, with little fanfare and minimal media attention, to flu-related deaths.

One major public health initiative has been launched in response to these deaths, and that is to promote the flu vaccine for older Americans. The percentage of elders who are vaccinated annually has grown about four-fold in the last 30 years. But there’s just one problem with this approach: The vaccine apparently doesn’t work too well for us old folks, if at all.

For decades, the conventional wisdom was that the vaccine cut flu-related deaths in the elderly by anywhere from 25 to 75 percent. But as the New York Times reported last fall, ”a growing number of immunologists and epidemiologists say the vaccine probably does not work very well for people over 70, the group that accounts for three-fourths of all flu deaths.”A study published last year in Britain’s most respected medical journal, the Lancet, found no correlation at all between flu vaccination and a reduced risk of illness and death.

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Video: The RNC Tries This Thing Called "Humor"

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 12:08 PM PDT

The comedic geniuses over at the Republican National Committee apparently decided to showcase Obama's 100 days by producing this big bucket of web ad fail, cleverly disguised as a parody video. No wonder you don't see many Republicans doing stand-up.

Via Wonkette:

Watch what appears to be a Southern white man doing his "blacky voice" over video of Obama’s inauguration speech...The introductory text reads, "100 days ago, a man read a grand speech from a TelePrompter. What if the Teleprompter had accidentally switched to reality-mode?" Then: "A parody from the RNC." OH JESUS, RUN.

Is it that bad? Watch below and decide for yourself:

John Murtha Airport: Earmark Reform Poster Child

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 11:06 AM PDT

Pennsylvania Congressman John "Jack" Murtha, a Democrat and the powerful chairman of the House appropriations committee, is a creature of the Washington culture that needs to be changed. Here's another example of why:

At the behest of Rep. John P. Murtha (D), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, the Pentagon has spent about $30 million equipping the little-used airport named for him so it can handle behemoth military aircraft and store combat equipment for rapid deployment to foreign battlefields....

Some locals call the Johnstown airport "Fort Murtha" because of the stream of wartime projects at the facility. Although its runway is capable of servicing the largest airplanes in North America, the airport now is used only by small commuter planes that make six trips a day back and forth to Washington Dulles International Airport.

Many of the commercial flights, which are subsidized by federal transportation dollars, carry only a handful of passengers. On a recent visit, all of the departing flights were less than half full, and one had only four passengers -- screened by seven federal airport personnel.

All told, Murtha has steered about $150 million in federal funds to the airport. This spring, it was among the first four in the country to receive stimulus money -- $800,000 for a runway-widening project. 

I consider that money stolen from the American taxpayers. High time for earmark reform.

Texas, Run by Secessionist Guv, Has Received More Federal Disaster Relief Than Any State

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 7:32 AM PDT

Like everyone else, I was amused when Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, requested help from the CDC with swine flu medication just a week or so after he said that the "federal government has become oppressive" and that if Texans started considering seceding from the union, "who knows what might come out of that." Perry didn't seem to realize that throwing off the yoke of the federal government would mean no more help when the going got tough.

Today comes news that Perry has issued a disaster declaration for the state of Texas, the first step in getting assistance from federal agencies like FEMA, DHS, and HHS. I decided to take a look at how many times the federal government has bailed Texas out during Perry's tenure. The results are pretty incredible.

Bankruptcy and Chrysler

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 6:16 AM PDT

If the Times's sources are correct, it looks like we're going to see a bankruptcy filling from Chrysler later today. A few debtors have balked at the Treasury Department's offer of 33 cents on the dollar:

To win over several hedge funds, which have been holding out for better terms, the Treasury increased its cash offer to holders of Chrysler’s secured debt by $250 million, to $2.25 billion, these people said. If all of the secured holders would agree to the new deal, which would give them the cash in exchange for retiring about $6.9 billion of debt, Chrysler would still have a chance of restructuring out of bankruptcy court.

[...]

The four big banks that own 70 percent of Chrysler’s secured debt have already signed on to the Treasury’s plan and are trying to line up the other lenders in favor of the new terms.

If all 46 lenders do not agree to the new offer, and a bankruptcy filing occurs, the lenders will be forced to accept the $2 billion they were originally offered or fight in court for a higher amount.

This conjures two questions in my head: Why do these holdouts think they can get better terms? Do they really think the bankruptcy courts are going to be more amiable to them, especially after considering the debtors who hold a vast majority of Chrysler's liabilities have accepted the Treasury's terms? The Treasury's deal would leave about $675 million for the holdouts. I say take the money and swallow your losses on the bad investment; the deal doesn't look like it will get much sweeter.

UPDATE: The Obama administration has confirmed Chrysler will indeed for bankruptcy today.

Calling All Campus Hellraisers

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 4:50 PM PDT

Today's fearless feats of student activism go far beyond the rallies, protests and marches of yesteryear—here's your chance to spread the word about your favorites.

Mother Jones and Campus Progress proudly introduce the Hellraisers, our first annual student activism awards.

Here's how it works: You tell us about your favorite activism antics. Selected nominees will be featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Anyone can nominate any current student activists (and we're not just talking college here! High schoolers, grad students, kindergartners—all okay).

Nominating is quick and easy. Do it here.

 

 

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Swine Flu Deja Vu--and SNAFU

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 2:47 PM PDT

The more we learn about the current swine flu outbreak, the more it all begins to sound like what happened in 2005, when the world faced a possible pandemic of avian flu. But with the exception of stocking up on Tamiflu, most governments seem to have taken little meaningful action in response to the bird flu scare, and learned few lessons.

In certain ways, the world’s experience with Avian flu may actually have rendered it less, rather than more prepared for a new outbreak. The Daily Telegraph (UK) reported earlier this week on a meeting of scientists held in Austria back in February, before the swine flu had surfaced. There, Harvard professor Thomas Monath warned that because so much attention had been focused on bird flu, if another strain popped up, “we would be screwed.” The Telegraph’s medical editor writes:

He warned vaccine manufacturing capacity is insufficient, meaning that if a pandemic strain of flu emerged now it would be impossible to make enough for the world’s population in time.

The scientific community had become “complacent” about a new flu pandemic because the avian influenza strain H5N1 has been around for 13 years without spreading around the world.

Prof Monath said: “If it’s a new strain of flu it will be nine months to a year before we have got really good geared up vaccine production. We will rely on antiviral drugs first and then it is a crash effort to make a vaccine. In the meantime there will be clearly an emerging uncontained problem,” he said.

A second unlearned lesson has to do with the way we treat our livestock. Here, again, explicit warnings have been ignored. In an excellent piece on Huffington Post, David Kirby outlines the links among the virulent new flu strains and “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, where tens of thousands of animals live packed together in poorly ventilated sheds, standing (and breathing) in their own excrement.

Economist James Galbraith: Bush Fiddled With Gov't Spending to Postpone Recession Effects

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 10:18 AM PDT

Last summer, economist James K. Galbraith predicted in Mother Jones that the Bush administration would increase government spending in 2008 in order to postpone the worst effects of the recession until after the next President took office:

The [$600 stimulus check most taxpayers received last year] isn't the only little Dutch boy thrown headlong at the dike this election year. Government spending, especially for defense, will be up: Military spending as a share of [gross domestic product] is expected to grow by $75 billion in fiscal 2008, enough to neutralize a 0.3 percent decline in GDP. Dick Cheney was secretary of defense for Bush 41; just before the 1992 election he engineered a big run-up in outlays, as the military restocked following the first Gulf War. (It was exposed in the first Clinton "Economic Report.") Is the Pentagon up to that trick again? I'd be astonished if it were not.

Now it seems Galbraith's prediction has proven true. GDP numbers for the first quarter of 2009 are out, and they don't look pretty. Galbraith writes in an email:

Federal Government spending was up 7.0 percent in the fourth quarter but DOWN 4 percent in the first. Looks to me, off-hand, like the old election-year trick, which I naturally predicted (in MJ) early last year. Octokyphosis, as Ed Tufte called it many years ago: humping in October.   Maybe a bit delayed, and too late to help John McCain.

A look at the actual numbers on government spending seem to confirm Galbraith's suspicions: there are big drops in defense consumption and gross investment between the Bush adminstration's last quarter and the Obama administration's first one. Don't believe it? Read Galbraith's original story and decide for yourself.

So Much For NCLB: Racial Achievement Gap Wide as Ever

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:56 AM PDT

Oh dear. Here's the bad news on minority educational achievement:

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W. Bush's frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.
Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law, the official description of which is "An Act to Close the Achievement Gap."...
The 2008 score gap between black and white 17-year-olds, 29 points in reading and 26 points in math, could be envisioned as the rough equivalent of between two and three school years' worth of learning, said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner for assessment at the Department of Education.

When the Obama administration brings the bill up for reauthorization this year, I'm hoping to see the hard-headed, 'it takes a village' kind of thinking that can provide quality education for all our children. It takes after school programs, Saturday schools, and reform of the kinds of dysfunctional educational bureaucracies that stifle innovation and drive out the best teachers. It also takes communities doing their parts; overseeing homework, unplugging the TV, staying in close contact with the kids' teachers, policing their neighborhoods so kids can study in peace. Otherwise, the long term crisis of inner city education will continue in a world which becomes more highly technological and labor-unfriendly everyday.

White House Photos Now on Flickr

| Wed Apr. 29, 2009 9:55 AM PDT

The White House has put an immense number of photos on Flickr for the public to view, copy, distribute, and remix. The candid shots of Obama and his family are pretty neat. Below, four photos of Obama playing or watching sports.

Obama sports photo montage: Obama sports photo montage

Left: Obama contests Education Secretary Arne Duncan's jump shot. Top right: Obama and Michelle react to their daughter Sasha's basketball game. Middle right: Obama is heckled by a man wearing an Obama shirt at a Wizards-Bulls basketball game in Washington DC. Obama went to support the Bulls. Bottom right: Obama and Biden practice putting with the White House in background.