Mojo - July 2009

Mark Sanford and the Media

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 11:56 AM PDT

The State has some emails of right-wing media types sucking up to Mark Sanford's office. Josh Marshall calls this "Hacks on Parade." Steve Benen admits that "media professionals may try to curry favor with a source (or potential source) in the hopes of landing a bigger story or interview," but goes on to parse this story far too finely:

[T]his Sanford story seems different, to the extent that conservative news outlets communicated to aides for a conservative governor that they're on his side.

But it's not what the conservative outlets tell Sanford that's the issue. It's what they do. Take Stephen Colbert's email to Sanford's office, for example:

As you may know, I declared myself Governor of South Carolina last night. I went power mad for abut 40 seconds before learning that Gov. Sanford was returning today.

If the governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale I would be happy to have him on. In person here, on the phone, or in South Carolina.

Stay strong, Stephen

Colbert's message highlights what's actually going on here. Colbert may or may not believe that the Sanford thing was "a small story that got blown out of scale." But he's clearly sucking up to get access: he's going to play it for laughs on the show. He certainly won't help keep it from being "blown out of scale," if that's what he really believes happened. Does anyone really think that it's only places like the WSJ and the Washington Times that do this sort of thing? How many journalists have told a source, "we want to get your side of the story out" when the story is already pretty clear from more reliable sources?

It's a hard truth, but Janet Malcolm was right about the journalist:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Bottom line: it is neither surprising nor unusual that media figures were trying to flatter Mark Sanford while he was the biggest story in America.

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Congress: Hey Geithner, Show Us the Bailout Money!

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 11:17 AM PDT

Congress is fed up with the Treasury Department's lack of bailout transparency and, more specifically, its refusal to account for how rescued financial institutions have used their billions in taxpayer funds. And rightly so. It's only fair that, in bailing out struggling financial institutions, Geithner and Co. track how those taxpayer dollars have actually been used. Specifically, whether they've been used for their intended purpose (boosting lending to small businesses and consumers), or simply to shore up their balance sheets—as appears to be closer to the truth. Since Geithner failed to respond to a May letter from 20 House and Senate Democrats on this subject, Congress is taking matters into its own hands. It has inserted into the FY 2010 Financial Services and Government Appropriations bill language to legally mandate that Geithner either increase oversight and transparency over the use of bailout funds, or show up before Congress and explain why not.

The Treasury's rationale for not tracking these funds, an excuse they've been peddling for months now, is that it's essentially impossible to track the flow of bailout funds once they're in the banks' coffers. But that's BS. The Special Inspector General for TARP, or SIGTARP, said in its April quarterly report to Congress (PDF) that it had gathered this very information by surveying 364 banks that had received funds before January 31. All SIGTARP did was send letters to the banks and ask nicely. As the 20 lawmakers wrote in May:

Although the results of the [SIGTARP] survey still need to be analyzed, one thing is clear: Treasury's arguments that such an accounting was impractical, impossible, or a waste of time because of the inherent fungibility of money were unfounded. Banks generally provided a reasonable level of detail regarding their use of TARP funds, and, while the response quality was not uniform, some banks were able to provide detailed, at times even granular, descriptions of how they used taxpayer money.

The Financial Services and Government Appropriations bill mandating that Geithner explain himself should come up for a vote before the full House later this week. After countless reports and statements from individuals like SIGTARP point man Neil Barofsky, Congressional Oversight Panel chairwoman Elizabeth Warren, lawmakers, and others calling for far greater transparency over the bailout, perhaps Congress' latest effort will shine a light on how taxpayers’ billions have actually been used—hardly an unreasonable proposition.

Sen. Franken Flops at Sotomayor Hearings

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 10:42 AM PDT

Ok, maybe flop is a bit of an overstatement, but in Al Franken's much awaited debut on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the no-longer-funny comedian gave one of the worst performances of his life yesterday. Looking nervous, Franken delivered opening remarks at the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, tripping over his lines in a way he never seemed to on his other live performances. He did manage to pay tribute to the good citizens of Duluth, a sign that he's got the important parts of this senatorial job down. You can judge his performance for yourself here:

Will the Feds Save CIT Group?

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 9:14 AM PDT

Sub-prime lender CIT Group is in trouble and asking the Feds for help. Former chief economist for the IMF and current Baseline Scenario blogger Simon Johnson predicts that, on balance, a bailout is probably unlikely. Why?

CIT’s bailout possibilities are now in the realm of political choice... [T]he lack of strong connections between CIT’s CEO and senior Treasury officials looks like a weakness.  CIT seems to sit at the edge of the charmed circle, with regard to meetings, shared social engagements, and intellectual entanglements.  This is a close call, but I think it is just on the outside of the circle – in the sense that with the overall financial market situation more stable, the GM bankruptcy well-managed relative to expectations, and other credit support programs still in place, the balance of official opinion will tilt against CIT.

So then it all comes down to political donations.  At least in terms of what is in the public record, Mr. Peek has not been overly generous, but he did give money to John McCain – and not to any Democrats.  If this is in fact the limit of his recent contributions, I think you know the outcome.

So that's how they make these decisions. I thought it was something like this:

Cheeseheads Rule Judiciary Committee

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 3:40 PM PDT

Usually when people complain that the make-up of the Senate gives small, sparsely populated states too much power, they're thinking about Wyoming. But this week, with the Senate Judiciary Committee running the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, that dynamic has changed a bit. The Uptake, an outfit that's been streaming the hearings live through our website, has come up with a nice map to demonstrate the regional powerhouses in the confirmation hearing.

The obvious conclusion: Cheeseheads rule. Both senators from Wisconsin (Feingold and Kohl) are on the committee, as are both senators from Minnesota (Franken and Klobuchar), giving those states a big voice in how the hearings proceed and also, their ultimate outcome. Who knew Al Franken would end up such a player after only five days on the job?

How the ICE Kept This Man Locked Up for 7 Months

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 10:35 AM PDT

To those of you that have not already read "We Bring Fear," Chuck Bowden's amazing piece on the plight of Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, well, get on it. For everyone else,  I thought I'd share with you how Immigration and Customs Enforcement used a ridiculous legal argument to keep Emilio behind bars and separated from his son for seven months.

Mother Jones obtained a copy of one of the rejection letters sent to Emilio and his lawyer, Carlos Spector, after they requested Emilio's parole. (See annotated version below). In it, Robert Jolicoeur, Field Office Director at the El Paso center where Emilio was detained, claims that Emilio failed to meet 4 of the 5 criteria required for asylum applicants to receive parole. But the grounds are bogus, as you'll notice—and this is an example of what Carlos Spector referred to as the "Guantanimization of the refugee process." (It's a dirty little secret that during the Bush years asylum applicants from Mexico were held indefinitely to discourage them from pursuing their asylum claims.) The nonprofit Human Rights First released a great report on refugee Guantanimization in April: "U.S. Detention of Asylum Seeks: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison."

See Emilio's actual rejection letter and read a debunking of each provision after the break.

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Electronic Medical Records

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 8:54 AM PDT

A friend just returned from a family reunion in Ireland. A lot of his relatives are doctors. The Irish ones make less money, but they love their jobs, not least because they all have portable digital devices with all their patients' information (including, for example, x-rays) available at the touch of a button. My friend's American doctor relatives make more money, but none of them seem to have access to anything like the Irish doctors' portable electronic medical records: all of them are still doing some, if not all, of their record-keeping on paper.

This is silly, and the government is working to change it. The stimulus plan includes billions of dollars to support computerization of medical records. But in a great new cover story for the Washington Monthly, Philip Longman explains that the Obama administration may be doing it all wrong. Longman compares two hospitals that adopted electronic medical records around the same time: Midland Memorial in South Texas, and the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Things went great in Texas, but terribly in Pennsylvania. "The devil, as usual, is in the details," writes Longman:

While many factors were no doubt at work, among the most crucial was a difference in the software installed by the two institutions. The system that Midland adopted is based on software originally written by doctors for doctors at the Veterans Health Administration, and it is what’s called "open source," meaning the code can be read and modified by anyone and is freely available in the public domain rather than copyrighted by a corporation. For nearly thirty years, the VA software’s code has been continuously improved by a large and ever-growing community of collaborating, computer-minded health care professionals, at first within the VA and later at medical institutions around the world. Because the program is open source, many minds over the years have had the chance to spot bugs and make improvements. By the time Midland installed it, the core software had been road-tested at hundred of different hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes by hundreds of thousands of health care professionals.

The software Children’s Hospital installed, by contrast, was the product of a private company called Cerner Corporation. It was designed by software engineers using locked, proprietary code that medical professionals were barred from seeing, let alone modifying. Unless they could persuade the vendor to do the work, they could no more adjust it than a Microsoft Office user can fine-tune Microsoft Word. While a few large institutions have managed to make meaningful use of proprietary programs, these systems have just as often led to gigantic cost overruns and sometimes life-threatening failures. Among the most notorious examples is Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, which in 2003 tore out a "state-of-the-art" $34 million proprietary system after doctors rebelled and refused to use it. And because proprietary systems aren’t necessarily able to work with similar systems designed by other companies, the software has also slowed what should be one of the great benefits of digitized medicine: the development of a truly integrated digital infrastructure allowing doctors to coordinate patient care across institutions and supply researchers with vast pools of data, which they could use to study outcomes and develop better protocols.

Read the whole piece.

How Much Money Do Bankers Make Now?

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 8:36 AM PDT

A lot, of course. The New York Times reports that Goldman Sachs, "which only recently paid back its government bailout money, will report blowout profits from trading on Tuesday"—$2 billion in four months. The company is set to pay out $18 billion in compensation this year, which works out to over $600,000 per employee. In addition to the TARP money it received, Goldman was a major beneficiary of the federal government's bailout of AIG. But, you know, everyone does this sort of thing, so it's all good. Move along now—nothing to see here.

Treasury's Transparency Two-Step

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 6:07 AM PDT

Is Treasury not getting the message? When it comes to administering TARP, the agency has been warned again and again about its lack of transparency by the three government watchdogs monitoring the bailout. Back in January, the Government Accountability Office concluded that goings on at the agency were so opaque it was difficult to tell whether Treasury even had a "strategic vision" for TARP at all. The agency has even tried to stonewall Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General for TARP (or, SIGTARP), refusing to hand over certain documents he requested. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor chairing the Congressional Oversight Panel, has said that "without more transparency and accountability...it is not possible to exercise meaningful oversight over Treasury's actions." It must have been all the more frustrating for her when COP recently requested specific information about the stock warrants Treasury received from bailout recipients only to be told that none would be forthcoming.

At issue is whether Treasury is maximizing taxpayers' return on investment, or giving bailed out banks sweetheart deals by allowing them to repurchase their warrants at bargain rates. So far it looks like the latter. The COP's latest report [PDF], released on Friday, found "eleven small banks have repurchased their warrants from Treasury for a total amount that the Panel estimates to be only 66 percent of its best estimate of their value," shorting taxpayers about $10 million overall. While the agency has only sold warrants from smaller banks so far, if it were to unload its holdings under the same terms, taxpayers could lose out on as much as $2.7 billion. Given this, it would seem particularly important to find out how exactly Treasury is valuing these warrants. But this is specifically the information the agency is refusing to part with.

House GOP: Forget Parenting; Give 'Em Baby Einstein

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

"Trillions in Spending, Billions for Babysitters? Nancy's 'Nanny-State' Enshrined in Legislation"—thus begins a policy document quietly released by the House Republican Conference (HRC) as the House Democrats introduced their big health reform package a couple of weeks ago.

The provision of the House megabill singled out for ridicule used to be a separate bill, HR2667, with one lonely GOP backer, Rep. Todd Russell Platts of Pennsylvania. As the HRC notes in its one-page brief, this provision would give states $1.75 billion in dedicated federal funds over five years to "improve the well-being, health, and development of children" via home visitation programs. It's intended to help teach low-income parents how kids develop, their age-appropriate behaviors and health issues, and "activities designed to help parents become full partners in the education of their children."

In short: babysitting.