Mojo - June 2009

Mixed Reviews for Obama's Speech

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 11:07 AM EDT

How did Obama's hard truths play in Cairo? Over at Politico, Roger Simon notes that his speech, at times, "fell flatter than a piece of pita bread." And when the president did move his audience to applause, it came at predictable moments. For instance, when Obama spoke of outlawing torture, "applause and whistles of approval" followed. But on other topics--9/11, confronting and isolating "violent extremists," America's "strong bonds" with Israel--silence.

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Sonia Sotomayor's Addiction Problem

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 11:07 AM EDT

Not that this is relevant to her ability to serve on the Supreme Court, but Sonia Sotomayor clearly has an addictive personality. A profile of the judge in Thursday's Washington Post reveals that during her heady days as a prosecutor in New York, Sotomayor smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. When President Obama was narrowing down his choices to fill the soon to be vacant slot on the U.S. Supreme Court, was he trying to find someone to sneak cigarettes with?

But that's not all:

The prosecutors were expected to juggle 80 to 100 cases at a time, and in her years there Sotomayor tried perhaps 20 cases before juries. She survived by becoming, in the words of her friend Dawn Cardi, a "caffeine addict" who started her day with a Tab, one of maybe 20 she threw back on an average day...

It's great to see that Sotomayor has vices like the rest of us. But 20 a day? I (Nick) like my diet soda, but I've never had more than two 2-liter bottles, and that's on a really bad day. Sotomayor's habit was the equivalent of over three and a half 2-liter bottles a day. That's a lot of cola. And the 936 mg of caffeine in 20 Tabs is the equivalent of around nine brewed coffees. Add in 30 cigarettes, and you've got one wired prosecutor.

Whether she still smokes (or drinks Tab) seems to be a mystery, though Sotomayor reportedly now works out at the gym three days a week or so, suggesting that she may have kicked the habit. Of course, Obama works out a lot too, and he still gets caught puffing once in a while. Perhaps the Judiciary Committee will ask her about this. After all, smoking is probably a lot more relevant to her longevity on the bench than the fact that she has diabetes, which has also come up during the debate.

One Simple Way to Reduce Health Care Costs, And Why It Won't Happen

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 10:13 AM EDT

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.

Obama's Tough Tour de Force in Cairo

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 9:41 AM EDT

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:

Obama's Cairo Speech

| Thu Jun. 4, 2009 9:40 AM EDT

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

Does AF 447 Reveal the Safety Risks of Plastic Aircraft?

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:37 PM EDT

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.

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How to Game the College Rankings: Tips From Clemson

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 4:09 PM EDT

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:

 

Lessig's Change Congress Targets Dem Senator

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

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.)

Democratic Love for Reagan

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 1:06 PM EDT

There's been a lot of Ronald Reagan worshipping going on in Washington this week--among Democrats. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama signed a bill that will create a commission to plan events to celebrate what would have been Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday in 2011. Launching the commission, Obama said,

President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country -- a spirit that transcended politics, that transcended even the most heated arguments of the day. It was this optimism that the American people sorely needed during a difficult period -- a period of economic and global challenges that tested us in unprecedented ways.

New Cartoon Low: Sotomayor as Pinata

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

We've all seen the monkey cartoon, and now, a new low in satirical racism. Sure, cartoons are meant to be provocative and controversy is bound to arise, but this is absurd:

Some Oklahomans are outraged, if you are too give The Oklahoman a call: (405) 475-3311.

Spotted on Feministing.