J.J. (standing) and Elena Gutierrez talk to their father over the Internet Sept. 26, 2009, from Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, while he's deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Juan Gutierrez, assigned to the 12th Dental Squadron, and his family use computers, Web cams and microphones to see and hear each other almost daily during his six-month deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Sonny Cohrs)

Need To Read: October 8, 2009

Today's must-reads:

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If you haven't been paying attention to your credit cards' interest rates, this is a good time to start. Bloomberg reports today that Wells Fargo is jacking up its cards' APRs by three points on November 30—which just happens to be one day before Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) wants new protections for credit-card holders to kick in. Wells says it's just a big coincdence, but other card issuers including Chase, American Express, and Discover have also been bumping their rates and fees since Congress passed the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act in May. Some consumers are reporting rate hikes of more than 100 percent. So what's a cardholder to do in the face of this last-minute fit of money grubbing?

Under the new law, credit card issuers won't be able to increase your interest rate unless your payments are more than 60 days late, and if you then pay on time for six months, the original rate must go back into effect. That part of the law is supposed to kick in in February 2010—or December 1 if Frank prevails. But in the meantime, the law already gives you the right to tell your bank to take its higher interest rates and shove 'em. It's not a perfect solution—the higher rates can still apply to new balances and you might get your card cancelled—but it may be a lot more satisfying than having to suck up those extra percentage points in silence.

A day after Apple became the latest major company to quit the US Chamber of Commerce over its reactionary stance on climate change, Chamber president Tom Donohue went on the offensive, claiming Apple CEO Steve Jobs had "forfeited the opportunity to advance a 21st century approach to climate change."

Yesterday Donohue sent a pissy letter to Jobs talking up Chamber's efforts to "tackle climate change in a way that will strengthen our economy" and concluding that "it is a shame that Apple will not be part of our efforts." As he often does, Donohue emphasised that the Chamber represents "more than 3 million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region." It was as if to say that Apple, and not the Chamber, was on the fringe of the climate issue.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As I reported in detail today, the Chamber has offered few ways for its members to influence its policy work, and that's especially true in the case of climate change. Interviews with current and former board members reveal that the Chamber's leadership violated its written rules by pursuing an obstructionist approach to climate legislation without getting a vote of approval from its board or committees. And even the board--made of of huge, often petro-intensive companies--scarcely resembles the overall US business community.

On Monday, Apple's vice president of worldwide government affairs had sent a letter to the Chamber exhorting Donohue to think different. "We strongly object to the Chamber's recent comments opposing the EPA's efforts to regulate greenhouse gases," she said. "We would prefer that the Chamber take a more productive stance on this critical issue and play a constructive role in addressing the climate crisis."

So would many environmental groups. Sensing weakness in the nation's largest business lobby, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently launched print ads and a website asking, "Who does the Chamber represent?" Read today's investigative piece on the Chamber for some answers.

This post first appeared at the TomDispatch website.

And you thought "don't ask, don't tell" was a U.S. law on gays in the military that Barack Obama has promised to change. As it turns out, the same phrase plays quite a different role in the Middle East, where Obama seems to have no intention of changing it at all. Successive administrations have adhered to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to Israel's sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons. That country has never acknowledged their existence, adhering instead to another arcane formula: "We will not introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." Jonathan Schell has described this strange situation: "Evidently, in some abstruse way, possessing [nuclear weapons] is not introducing them. You'd have to do something more to introduce them. You'd have to brandish one or make a threat with one, or maybe just acknowledge that you had them. As long as they keep them in the basement and don't make any introductions, then it's alright."

Writing my screed against the AMA's ridiculous price-setting cabal got me thinking. Is there a single example of a profession that self-regulates in a way that's good for society as a whole, as opposed to protecting the interests of the members of that profession at the expense of everyone else? Liberals often slam industries when they talk about a desire to "self-regulate." Why shouldn't we be skeptical of the same claims from professional associations? Doctors (with their labor theory of value) and lawyers (with their billable hours) are just the most pernicious examples of professions that have structured their compensation in ways that are deeply harmful to the public interest.

Of course, with government regulation, you run the risk of industry capture—professions can and do simply petition the government to enact regulations that only serve the interests of their members—requiring interior designer licenses, for example. But self-regulation has no chance of working for anything other than the professionals' self-interest. So it seems like government regulation at least gives you the chance of a result that serves the greater good. People and industries do not consistently act against their self-interest. So if an industry or a profession or a person's self-interest runs contrary to the public good, there's a case for changing the law and instituting penalties that change that calculus.

Infamous Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio—subject of scorn and New Yorker profiles, who flaunts his brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants in Maricopa county—may be smarting since his deputies were stripped of their power to arrest and detain suspected immigration offenders last week. But the bad policy he epitomized is far from gone.

In fact, the program is expanding, despite ample evidence that it undermines local police work. Known as 287(g), the program is meant to snag gang bangers, coyotes and narcotraficantes.  In practice, however, it grants local cops the authority to begin deportation proceedings over a speeding ticket, or to aid ICE in home raids, or to generally intimidate whole immigrant communities, documented or otherwise, into avoiding law enforcement altogether. Though the Obama administration has revised the program's most contentious aspects (participants will have until October 15th to sign off on watered-down privileges), the most basic problems remain. 

"We have seen, in late spring, the release of additional 287(g) agreements. [The administration] promised a review of those agreements, but in the process there has been an expansion to additional localities," said Gabriela Villareal, advocacy coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition. "Any enforcement of immigration law should be placed in the hands of the federal government. [287(g)] creates an additional level of distrust in the community."

Energy efficiency is not particularly exciting. But it is among the best hopes for a quick fix on emissions in the US, and it's another area where Denmark has made significant progress. Improved building codes lowered the overall cost of heating Danish buildings 20 percent between 1975 and 2001, even though the amount of space that needed to be heated in homes and buildings expanded by 30 percent over the same period of time, according to the Danish Energy Authority.

It's not like we don't now about the value of improved efficiency in the US. The McKinsey study on the value of greater efficiency has been cited repeatedly in recent months. It includes a litany of potential benefits that could come by simply making our building stock less wasteful. Energy use in buildings accounts for 40 percent of our fossil fuel use and, thus, 40 percent of our emissions. More than half of that is used on heating and cooling, and much of that leaks out thanks to woefully inefficient construction.

The McKinsey report found that investing in energy efficiency measures for the nation's buildings has the potential to reduce energy consumption 23 percent by 2020, save up to $130 billion a year, cut emissions of 1.1 gigatons, and create 900,000 new jobs. That would put us well on our way to the carbon dioxide emissions reductions being discussed in Congress, for one, and would save Americans a heck of a lot of money. What's not to like?

Andy Kroll had a good piece on the front page yesterday explaining the problems that America's looming shortage of non-specialty doctors could cause for health care reform. Here's the gist: 

If primary-care medicine in the US were a patient, its diagnosis would be grim. The first responders to illness and pain, who can spot and treat chronic conditions in their early stages, primary-care doctors are in greater demand each year. In 2006, just more than 250,000 primary-care doctors practiced in the US—by some estimates, that was about several thousand to more than 7,000 less than the demand. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that by 2025 the demand for primary-care doctors will have soared to nearly 320,000 doctors nationwide, a 29 percent increase from 2006 and the most for all types of physicians.

Andy explains that "part of this supply problem is financial"—primary care docs make much less money than specialists. Do you know why that is? After all, basic economics should tell you the opposite—if primary care doctors really are in short supply, they could charge more, and they would make more. Except that the American health care delivery system is not a free market. Far from it. It's a system dominated by a single payer—government spending on Medicare and Medicaid—that hugely affects prices throughout the system. The amount that Medicare and Medicaid pay has a huge effect on doctors' bottom lines. And Medicare and Medicaid don't pay based on results. They don't pay based on supply and demand. They pay based on how "hard" a procedure is. Slate health care columnist Darshak Sanghavi explained how this works last month:

Spc. Jesse A. Murphree, Destined Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), greets his 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team comrades returning from deployment in Afghanistan, on the flight line at Aviano Air Base, Italy, July 22. Murphree lost his legs in an improvised explosive device attack in the Korengal Valley, near Ali Abad, Afghanistan, Dec. 27, 2007. (US Army photo via army.mil.)