Mojo - August 2009

Today in Police Weaponry

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

Two items of interest:

Local FBI agents say Boston is a sitting duck for a Mumbai-type terrorist attack—because terrorists know the police don’t have any semi-automatic assault rifles with which to defend the city.

"Boston is making itself vulnerable to a terrorist attack like the rampage in Mumbai last year by not adequately arming its police with the semiautomatic assault rifles widely available to officers in many of the nation’s other major cities," the top FBI agent in Boston said yesterday, according to the Boston Globe.


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USNWR's Peer Survey Problems

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

This should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the recent kerfuffle over Clemson University's admission that it spun its numbers to improve its U.S. News & World Report's ranking: On USNWR's peer assessment survey, which accounts for a quarter of a school's overall ranking, college administrators gave their own schools rave reviews while playing down competitor institutions.

Inside Higher Ed obtained copies of peer assessment surveys from 18 colleges and universities. "Haphazard responses" from "apathetic respondents" abounded. 

Some telling findings:

  • The presidents and/or provosts of 15 of the 18 universities rated their institutions “distinguished,” from Berkeley (no. 21 on last year’s list) to the University of Missouri at Columbia (No. 96).
  • At Berkeley in 2008, the chancellor rated other “top” publics -- including the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – “strong.” However, he rated all of the University of California campuses “distinguished,” with the exceptions of Santa Cruz and Riverside, which were also “strong.” (Merced was not on the list.)
  • In a 2009 survey, an official at the University of California at San Diego (No. 35) rated that campus “distinguished,” above the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University and Johns Hopkins University (all “strong”).
  • The president of the University of Florida (No. 49) rated his campus “distinguished” in this year’s survey -- along with Harvard, Stanford and MIT -- and no other institution in Florida above “good,” as reported by the Gainesville Sun.

Inside Higher Ed points out that this isn't really outright gaming—the peer assessment survey simply asks for opinions. What kind of administrator wouldn't play up his or her own institution? And according to University of Vermont president Daniel M. Fogel, even if you wanted to play fair, you'd likely end up working overtime: Fogel estimated that if one were to research each school on the survey before passing judgement, filling out the form would take ten hours.

USNWR releases its 2010 college rankings tomorrow.

Update: USNWR 2010 rankings are out, and so is the MoJo Mini College Guide.

Moving Past Public Options and Health Care Co-ops

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 11:29 AM EDT

Now that the public option in health care reform seems to be nearing its demise, non-profit co-ops are all the rage, with every damn media outlet in the Union scrambling to pick apart the latest player in the health-care debate. Just as the public option's merits have been debated and fought over ad nauseum, so, too, will this latest twist in the health care battle, an idea largely connected to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a member of the (unfortunately) influential Gang of Six.

But this entire debate, lest we forget, has centered on mainly one aspect of overhauling health care to make it more affordable and expand access to the uninsured. Granted, you wouldn't know that by how much the admittedly sexier insurance side of the discussion—how we get care—dominates the news cycle; but arguably an even more important part of health care reform has been grossly underreported so far—what kind of care we receive. By that I mean the doctors we see (primary care or sub-specialists), the quality and types of care provided (proactive or reactive care; preventing versus doing), the health care systems that administer our care. And if you don't yet believe this subject needs far more attention than it's getting, read what Dr. Eric Larson, MD, MPH, and the executive director of Group Health, one of the leading co-ops in the nation, recently wrote to me. [after the jump.]

Novak, Corn, and Plamegate

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 10:33 AM EDT

At the time, Robert Novak couldn't have know that, despite a half century of covering Washington, one little line would ignite the scandal that would come to dominate his legacy: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Following the conservative columnist's death yesterday at the age of 78, mentions of his role in outing the CIA operative were ubiquitous in the numerous obits commemorating his life.

Our DC bureau chief, David Corn, played a unique role in the Plamegate saga, too. Then working for the Nation, he was the first to raise the possibility that Bush administration officials, bent on smearing diplomat Joseph Wilson, had broken the law by leaking the identity of Wilson's wife. Let's just say that David's role in breaking this news did not endear to him Novak, with whom he'd enjoyed a friendly enough relationship over the years. Over at Politics Daily, David recalls his interactions with Novak pre- and-post Plamegate:

I learned of the death of Bob Novak from an e-mail sent to me by an NPR reporter looking for a comment. And I felt awkward, for my last public exchange with the conservative columnist and TV pundit who relished his "Prince of Darkness" nickname had been an ugly one. There is, of course, the don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead rule. But what could I say about a fellow who had blasted me on national television as an ideological hack?

There wasn't always bad blood between us. Years earlier, as a substitute host on CNN's "Crossfire," I had come to enjoy wrestling with Novak. When I began that gig, though, he barely paid any attention to me before or after tapings, adopting an attitude that seemed to say, "Show me your stuff, kid." He acted as if I were an irritant, not a sparring partner who deserved to be in the ring with him. But I didn't expect much from Novak. For years, I had thought he used his column and cable appearances to do favors for conservative allies and to sully (sometimes unfairly) liberals. Eventually, he warmed up -- well, as much as he could -- and started pumping me for information on what Democrats and liberals in Washington were thinking. I hardly held any top-secret information in that regard, but we did what most political reporters in D.C. do when forced to spend time together: trade tidbits, gossip and half-stories. And in his 2000 book, "Completing the Revolution" (as in: the "conservative revolution"), he described me as a "bright, young, left-wing journalist." (Given his age, I suppose someone in his early 40s was "young.")

Dr. Dean's Health Care Prescription

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 6:54 AM EDT

Miriam Raftery, editor of the East County Magazine, provided a report earlier this week from an appearance at a San Diego bookstore by Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor, presidential candidate, and DNC chair, who is a physician, is on a book tour promoting Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Refom.

While Dean was ridiculed on the stump in 2004 as an out of control lefty, he has always been a New England moderate, and has never proposed anything faintly resembling socialized medicine. But Dean does believe, as he put it:

"The free market just doesn’t work in medicine. You can’t be an informed consumer. I never saw someone with severe chest pain jump off the table and say, 'Doctor, I’m going to the cheaper guy down the street.'"

Dean also doesn’t favor compromising on a public option, because “the public option is the compromise.” He advocates opening up Medicare so that those under 65 can buy in, while allowing anyone who chooses to keep their private insurance. 

“Americans ought to be able to decide for themselves: Is private health insurance really health insurance? Or is it simply an extension of the things that have been happening on Wall Street over the past five to ten years, in which private corporations find yet new and ingenious ways of taking money from ordinary citizens without giving them the services they’ve paid for?”

Here's another choice bit from Raftery's account, which offers a good precis of Dean's book as well as his talk in San Diego.

Dean noted that public healthcare in Europe was established not by liberals, but was in fact championed by conservative statesman Winston Churchill. "Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion," Churchill once stated. "Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available."

Cost of Medical Fraud Could Pay for Health Care Reform

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 6:45 AM EDT

According to reporting yesterday on NPR, the cost of medical fraud in the United States runs anywhere from $60 billion to $600 billion a year--in other words, it might actually exceed the price tag for health care reform. Instead of whining about the expense of reform measures, Republicans and Blue Dog Dems might think about saving us money by cracking down on fraudulent practices, which target both the government and private insurers. 

Obama has recently announced a new DOJ/HHS task force to combat fraud, and some versions of the health care reform bill have a measly $100 million set aside for anti-fraud measures. It seems like far too little and too late--but apparently, it's more than has been done by past administrations, or by the oversight committees, the appropriations and legislative committees whose job it is to ride herd on taxpayer funds. 

Here is a bit from the NPR report:

Medical fraud takes several forms. Most commonly, criminals get a list of patients’ names, then create fictitious doctors. They send bills to Medicare or Medicaid or health insurers for services supposedly rendered to these patients. By the time the payers figure out that the doctors they’re paying are fictitious and no service was ever rendered, the criminals have closed up shop and moved on.

Another popular form of health care fraud is the “rent-a-patient” scheme. Recruiters find people with health insurance willing to get care they don’t need, in exchange for cash or cosmetic surgery. Several years ago, insurers and the FBI said they had cracked a big case. People from 47 states were paid to come to California to receive unneeded care, including colonoscopies and surgery for sweaty palms. The doctors who performed the work reportedly charged insurers a total of $1 billion.

I suppose the libertarian Republicans would say it’s just a small price to pay for our free market system. And of course, if the government started taking a closer look at the crooks who illegally rip off the system, they might also have to deal with the crooks who rip off the system quite legally--the price-gouging insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their ilk.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 19, 2009

Wed Aug. 19, 2009 6:04 AM EDT

Cpt. Jason V. Basilides, a 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment platoon leader from Virginia Beach, Va., speaks to local leaders through interpreter Najeeb Ghafoori during a foot patrol July 27 in Deh Chopan district, Zabul province. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

Need To Read, August 19, 2009

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 3:00 AM EDT

Some must-reads from around the web:

Oprah's DC-heavy list of powerful women.

Obama's first rendition—part of a crackdown on contractor fraud?

Slow internet connection? Why cities get short-changed in a stimulus program to provide better broadband.

Protesters heckle John Yoo at the first day of lectures at Berkeley's law school.

California may jail more drug offenders—two weeks after it was ordered to reduce its prison population.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Bonner's Latest Astroturf Admission (Plus More Fake Letters)

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 5:21 PM EDT

Rep. Ed Markey's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has released a new batch of bogus letters sent to members of Congress by Bonner & Associates, including one the DC-based PR and lobbying firm previously told the committee was genuine but admitted on Monday was also a fake. The letters claim to be from representatives of local senior citizens groups concerned that climate change legislation will drive up energy costs for the elderly in an already "volatile economy."  

Founded in 1984 by Jack Bonner, a former GOP Senate aide and Republican National Committee staffer, the company specializes in Astroturf campaigns—efforts to create the illusion of grassroots support around the positions of its corporate clients. The firm accomplishes this by, among other things, convincing citizens, nonprofits, and others to sign letters to lawmakers in support or opposition to various issues.

Bonner's astroturfing techniques are dodgy in their own right, but the company took them to an even shadier level as the climate change bill authored by Markey and Henry Waxman neared a vote in the House. Bonner's role in crafting the phony letters first emerged in July,   after the legislation had already passed, when a local paper reported that the firm had sent forged letters to Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello purporting to be from minority groups opposed to the climate change bill. It was later revealed that Bonner, working on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, had targeted two other congressional Democrats, Kathy Dahlkemper and Christopher Carney, with this deceptive campaign. Both of the lawmakers, who represent districts in Pennsylvania, ultimately voted against the Waxman-Markey bill.

Jack Bonner has claimed that the letters were the work of a rogue "temporary employee" whom the firm fired when his or her actions came to light. ACCCE, meanwhile, has expressed "outrage" over the letters, even raising the possibility of taking legal action against Bonner.
 

New Orleans, Four Years Later

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 3:04 PM EDT

As we approach the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we're sure to start seeing some brief nods toward the event in the mainstream media: photos of people stranded on rooftops and bridges, maybe some re-runs of Anderson Cooper's on-air breakdown, along with a few heartwarming stories of survival and rescue to keep us from feeling too guilty about having abandoned an entire city of poor people to their fate.

What's less likely to receive much coverage is the aftermath of the storm--the years of neglect, the government-approved corporate ripoffs, and the ongoing suffering that persists to this day. A concise reminder appeared today in the form of a "Katrina Pain Index" compiled by Davida Finger and Bill Quigley. (Now at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Quigley formerly ran the Loyola Law School legal clinic in New Orleans, and provided powerful reports from the disaster.) I'm quoting some highlights, but the list is well worth reading in full on Counterpunch:

0. Number of renters in Louisiana who have received financial assistance from the $10 billion federal post-Katrina rebuilding program Road Home Community Development Block Grant – compared to 116,708 homeowners....

1.  Rank of New Orleans among U.S. cities in murders per capita for 2008.

1.  Rank of New Orleans among U.S. cities in percentage of vacant residences.  

2.  Number of Katrina cottages completed in Louisiana as of beginning of 2009 hurricane season under $74 million dollar federal program.

33.  Percent of 134,000 FEMA trailers in which Katrina and Rita storm survivors were housed after the storms which are estimated by federal government to have had formaldehyde problems....

50.  Ranking of Louisiana among states for overall healthcare....

27,279. Number of Louisiana homeowners who have applied for federal assistance in repair and rebuilding after Katrina who have been determined eligible for assistance but who have still not received any money.

30,396. Number of children who have not returned to public school in New Orleans since Katrina.  This reduction leaves the New Orleans public school population just over half of what it was pre-Katrina.

63,799. Number of Medicaid recipients who have not returned to New Orleans since Katrina....

143,193. Fewer people in New Orleans than before Katrina, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center estimate of 311,853, the most recent population estimate in Orleans.  

9.5 Million.  Dollar amount of federal Medicaid stimulus rejected outright by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal which would have expanded temporary Medicaid coverage for families who leave welfare and get a job.  

98 million:  Dollar amount of unemployment federal stimulus dollars rejected by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal that was available to bolster the unemployment compensation funds to assist 25,000 families in Louisiana.

900 Million:  Dollar amount paid to ICF International, the company that was hired by the State of Louisiana to distribute federal Road Home rebuilding dollars....