Mojo - December 2009

Was Obama Right About Rick Warren?

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 1:17 PM EST

Sometimes a little public outrage goes a long way. On Wednesday, Rick Warren, the California mega-church pastor who delivered the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, ended his uncomfortable silence on anti-gay legislation in Uganda by condemning (via YouTube) a proposed measure that would make homosexuality punishable by death. (Warren's Twitter feed suggests he’d been a bit more active behind the scenes). That same day, citing pressure from Ugandan pastors—Warren is huge there—politicians temporarily dropped the proposal. Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini's spokesman issued a statement blaming outside activists for derailing the legislation:

"The Anti-Homosexual Bill 2009, yet to be tabled on the floor of parliament, has attracted unnecessary hullabaloo," said the spokesman. "Some Western countries, with their characteristic condescending attitude, are already threatening to cut aid if that bill is passed into law." (h/t Episcopal Cafe)

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Joe Lieberman's Big Health Care Flip-Flop

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 11:42 AM EST

On Sunday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the onetime Democrat from Connecticut, vowed to filibuster any health care bill that contains a public option or that offers a Medicare "buy-in" for people under 65. Lieberman's threat, made to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, further dims the prospects for health care reform. But in vowing to kill health care reform to block any Medicare expansion, Lieberman has engaged in a dramatic flip-flop.

In 2000, when he was Al Gore's running mate, Lieberman campaigned on a platform that proposed offering everyone 55 and older an option to buy into Medicare. That proposal—which was a central part of the Gore-Lieberman campaign's health care plan—essentially would have created a robust public option for people aged 55 to 65. It's  the same proposal that Lieberman now claims is a deal-breaker for him on health care reform.

 

San Franciso's New Spin on Payday Loans

| Mon Dec. 14, 2009 9:00 AM EST

Their storefront locations with neon signs usually occupy the most impoverished, minority-populated parts of town. No, I'm not talking about liquor stores, but payday lenders—that fast cash industry that uses loopholes and exorbitant interest rates to prey on the vulnerable. North Carolina outlawed the industry in 2006, Washington D.C. followed suit in 2007, and this week, thanks to a coalition of six local credit unions devoted to derailing predatory lending, San Francisco will launch a low-cost alternative loan program called PayDayPlus SF.

Its 13 locations will open just weeks after a Federal Deposit Insurance Co. report found that 25.6 percent of U.S. households—that’s 60 million adults—either lack bank accounts or use payday loans and check cashing services in lieu of banks. The majority of these folks are black, American Indian, and Hispanic, the report shows. And that's exactly the demographic PayDayPlus SF aims to target, says Leigh Phillips from the San Francisco treasurer's office.  The city is the first in the U.S. with a program designed to bring disenfranchised residents into the financial mainstream. Basically, it has created a local banking system to respond to low-income people's needs and means. PayDayPlus SF is an off-shoot of the program and will cover check cashing and payday loans. "There are a couple of people that PayDayPlus SF's trying to reach," Phillips says. "They are people who need access to emergency funds for a car repair, people who don’t have access to credit cards, who don’t have credit ratings to get one, people who are trapped in the payday debt cycle."
 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 14, 2009

Mon Dec. 14, 2009 6:31 AM EST

Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Alfredo De Los Santos displays what the X2 microprocessor knee prosthetic can do by walking up a flight of stairs at the Military Advanced Training Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8, 2009. (army.mil.)

Need To Read: December 14, 2009

Mon Dec. 14, 2009 6:30 AM EST

Today's must reads:

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A New Lease on Life for Detroit's Auto Dealers?

| Sat Dec. 12, 2009 6:00 AM EST

Update: The Senate passed the omnibus spending bill by a 57-35 vote on Sunday, with the dealer arbitration language intact. The National Automobile Dealers Association said in a statement, "The amendment will provide a fair process to address dealer concerns about the recent closures of General Motors and Chrysler dealerships, and will give affected dealers transparency and the right to arbitrate to regain their dealerships." Mark Reuss, GM's North American president, called the arbitration language "an opportunity for all of us to make the right decisions and move on."

Buried way down in the fine print of the Congress' $1.1 trillion spending bill, passed Thursday by the House, is a lifeline for an endangered species—the American car dealer. A clause inside the the 1,088-page bill would give thousands of General Motors and Chrysler dealerships that have been put on the chopping block the chance to challenge their closure though arbitration. The measure's supporters say it will put the brakes on the Obama administration's controversial attempt to resuscitate Detroit by downsizing its dealerships. "Profitable dealers should have never been terminated in the first place, and I was proud to join the fight to have these short-sighted decisions reversed," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) in a statement last week. "Automobile manufacturers won't be able to get back on their feet without a strong dealer network, and Congress is committed to ensuring that such a network exists."

The dealer-arbitration plan is the latest lurch in the push-and-pull between GM, Chrysler, and their dealers, which began earlier this year when the two automakers emerged from bankruptcy proceedings with plans to shutter more than 2,000 auto showrooms nationwide. Backed by the Obama administration's Auto Task Force, the companies' executives told Congress that cutting unprofitable or underperforming dealers would trim unnecessary dealers, cut costs, and make their firms more competitive with their domestic and foreign counterparts. Fritz Henderson, the then-president and CEO of GM, said dealer closures could save his company more than $2 billion. Michael J. Robinson, a GM vice president and general counsel, told a House subcommittee in July that the move would allow the surviving dealers "to improve the overall customer experience and retain current customers."

However, car salespeople and their allies argue that closing dealerships would have the opposite effect, driving away consumers and possibly even killing the automakers. "When you hear [new GM CEO Ed] Whitacre say, 'Well, we're going to increase market share,' and you don't have as many dealers, you wonder what he's been drinking or smoking," says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "It just doesn't compute."

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Dodd Deemed 'Unelectable' in CT Senate Race

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 5:51 PM EST

Senator Chris Dodd’s re-election prospects have been upgraded from "Toss-up" to "Leans Republican" by well-respected elections predictor the Cook Political Report. Cook editor Jennifer Duffy acknowledged that the prediction is an unusual move for the publication this early in the cycle since incumbents generally catch up once they start campaigning actively. But she made an exception in Dodd's case, writing that the Connecticut Democrat is "as unelectable as unindicted incumbents get."

She's not exaggerating. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, Dodd trails his toughest opponent, former congressman Rob Simmons, by 13 points (48% Simmons, 35% Dodd). And in a match up with former WWE CEO Linda McMahon, Dodd trails by six points. Both Simmons and McMahon have a lot to slam Dodd for, from his connection to financial arch-villains like Countrywide Financial, to his refusal to give up campaign gifts from AIG executives, who later received staggering post-bailout bonuses courtesy Joe TaxPayer. 

So will Dodd step down? Duffy writes that "Democratic leaders have reached a similar conclusion, the question is how public they have to get before Dodd takes the hint that it is time to exit the race, and how messy the situation becomes." Most Democrats holding elected positions in Connecticut have said they will support Dodd. But if he decides to retire, you can expect those same Dems, well-known and obscure, to embrace the move whole-heartedly to welcome a stronger Democratic candidate.

Harry Reid's Medicare Mess

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 3:36 PM EST

In lieu of a public option for health-care reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a tentative, still-nebulous compromise this week that allows people 55 to 64 to "buy in" to Medicare starting in 2011. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the buy-in could affect 4 million people without health insurance. And while Reid's plan, concocted with five Democratic and five centrist senators dubbed the "Gang of 10," has been assailed as a major step toward single-payer care (and—gasp!—socialism), other critics do in fact raise raise some serious issues on how Reid's plan completely misses the mark.

First, Medicare is hardly well-suited to absorb additional users. As the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (Medpac) told Congress (PDF) in June, Medicare's financial breaking point is fast approaching, not to mention that 60 percent of people on Medicare now pay for supplemental coverage because of cost-sharing caps. Add to that mess three or four million 55 to 64-year-olds who're likely to need much more care than thirty- or even fortysomethings, and you're looking at a potentially serious viability crisis for Medicare.

The other big unknown with expanding Medicare is whether the health-care system in place—in particular, the physician workforce in place right now—can handle them. To illustrate, I turn to a subject more familiar than the annals of Medicare: the iPhone. When the iPhone arrived in stores (i.e., when people get access to health insurance), millions rushed to the nearest retailer and waited in long lines to buy one. However, when that huge crowd of people then turned on their phones and connected AT&T's network (i.e., newly insured people going to their doctors and receiving care), they overloaded a vastly underprepared system. The result: dropped calls, spotty service, slow loading times, and seething techies. In other words, the infrastructure buckled under the weight of all those new users.

Much the same could happen to Medicare which, like all American health care, lacks the capacity to handle a massive influx of new people. Dr. Ted Epperly, president of the American Association of Family Physicians, told me, "If all of a sudden President Obama increases access to the uninsured, there will be a huge capacity that the demand will not be met for. People will have access issues, and they will be sicker"; and though he was referring to health care in general, his quote equally applies to Medicare. As American Medical Association president J. James Rohack said in a statement this week: "Currently, the flawed Medicare physician payment formula will cause a drastic 21 percent cut to physicians caring for Medicare patients in January, and 28 percent of Medicare patients looking for a new primary care physician are having trouble finding one." Rohack added that the AMA doesn't favor Reid's plan because the group "has longstanding policy opposing the expansion of Medicare given the fiscal projections for the future," and instead prefers a health insurance exchange plan.

Perhaps most telling was this statement by Mayo Clinic executive director Jeffrey Korsmo (read by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN)) earlier this week:

"Expanding the Medicare system to persons 55-64 years old would ultimately hurt patients by accelerating the financial ruin of hospitals and doctors across the country. Mayo Clinic alone has begun to limit the number of Medicare patients and their practices, and the growing number of other providers will. This is clearly an unsustainable model."

Coming from one of the most highly regarded health-care institutions in the nation, it makes you wonder whether Reid's policy has less to do with healthy Americans and more to do with politically palatable solutions.

A Satirical Divorce Ban

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 1:21 PM EST

Perry vs. Schwarzenegger comes to the San Francisco federal court building next month, and promises to be one of the most important gay rights cases to date. The plaintiffs argue that the ban on gay marriage in California is unconstitutional, and the case is generally expected to reach the Supreme Court. For more on Perry vs. Scwarzenegger, see Gabriel Arana’s excellent article in The American Prospect.

Meanwhile, on a lighter (but related) note, Sacramento web designer John Marcotte has introduced an initiative to ban divorce in California. The 2010 California Marriage Protection Act, introduced by the married father of two, is meant to lampoon the gay marriage ban. From the CMPA's Web page:

RescueMarriage.org is the brain-child of concerned Christian and political activist John Marcotte, who felt strongly that Prop 8 did not go far enough in protecting traditional marriage. With the help of attorneys and friends, Marcotte is attempting to ban divorce in the State of California.

The initiative has been reported at NPR and the Huffington Post, and David Kirp, who teaches at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, wrote an interesting piece about it in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. From Kirp’s analysis:

The Catholic Church condemns the "mortal sin" of divorce. Wouldn't the clerics have to embrace an initiative that prohibits it? And what about the Mormons, who preach that divorce is the result of not living the Gospel - wouldn't they have to endorse it?

What an ingenious way to expose the hypocrisy of California’s gay marriage ban. Now all Marcotte needs is 700,000 Californian signatures to get the initiative onto the ballot.
 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 11, 2009

Fri Dec. 11, 2009 6:32 AM EST

With the help of a tour guide, US Army Soldiers explore what is thought to be the biblical home of Abraham among ruins discovered near the Great Ziggurat of Ur close to Contingency Operating Base, Adder, Iraq, Nov. 21, 2009. The Sumerians built the Ziggurat of Ur to honor their moon god, Nanna. (US Army photo by Spc. Shane P.S. Begg.)