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Incompetent George, Meyerson in WaPo

From WaPo’s opinion pages. Too good.

Bush the Incompetent, By Harold Meyerson

Wednesday, January 25, 2006; Page A19

Incompetence is not one of the seven deadly sins, . . . [b]ut it is this president’s defining attribute. Historians, looking back at the hash that his administration has made of his war in Iraq, his response to Hurricane Katrina and his Medicare drug plan, will have to grapple with how one president could so cosmically botch so many big things — particularly when most of them were the president’s own initiatives.

It’s the president’s prescription drug plan (Medicare Part D), though, that is his most mind-boggling failure. As was not the case in Iraq or with Katrina, it hasn’t had to overcome the opposition of man or nature. Pharmacists are not resisting the program; seniors are not planting car bombs to impede it (not yet, anyway). But in what must be an unforeseen development, people are trying to get their medications covered under the program. Apparently, this is a contingency for which the administration was not prepared, as it has been singularly unable to get its own program up and running. [Emphasis added. Rolling on floor, laughing.]

More and more, the key question for this administration is that of the great American sage, Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

(They can play it just fine, thank you. Gaming the system is what they do. Running it, that’s the hard part.)

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The constitutional crisis continues

Like Alterman, and like Gore in his more formal way, I keep wondering: what if they gave a constitutional crisis and nobody noticed?

Strike that. There’s no “what if” about it. It started years ago.

Thousands of voters in Florida in 2000 tried to vote for Gore. A candidate who values democracy would have conceded. Bush had his people on the ground declare the votes invalid, even though this was against Florida law (FS 101.5614(4) text below*). Instead, they focused the excitement on hanging chads in ballots they couldn’t disqualify. The media were told by the people throwing out votes that it was legal, and they uncritically believed them. Everybody, Gore included, Congress included, and the Florida legal system included, was too embarrased to notice the election being stolen. The Supremes selected a president, and the media went back to gossiping about sex.

The next constitutional crisis was lying the country into the Iraq war. At the time–not in hindsight–there was the curious unwillingness to share information with the international inspectors. The US said it knew about all sorts of stuff, but for some reason refused to tell the inspectors where to look. Then there was satellite imagery of a chemical or biological weapons site mentioned in some major speech (Powell to the UN?) that turned out to be chicken coops once inspected on the ground. This publicly available information should have been enough to make Congress suspicious, even without any classified data. Instead, they did their best not to notice the lies, the media did their best not to notice the lies, and everyone pretended that trusting the president was the extent of their job.

People die because of these constitutional crises. They’re not just something quaint out of a book.

The illegal war soon morphed into bigger crimes. People were being tortured at US-run jails. Torture is a crime against humanity, by any measure. It is against the Geneva Convention, which is a ratified treaty and therefore the law of the land. It violates every spirit of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, whose whole purpose was to protect individuals from abuse of state power. The Administration started by making excuses. “A few bad apples.” It then tried to twist legal language into justifying unjustifiable crime. It outsourced its torture needs and said its hands were clean. It went on and on. It still goes on. People were horrified and disgusted, but they didn’t seem to notice the president was breaking the law. They elected him, instead.

Now we have warrantless wiretapping. Also illegal. Another constitutional crisis. Some in the media report polls asking, “Is it okay to wiretap potential terrorists without a warrant?”

Um. Hello? That’s not the question. Quakers are being tapped. Vegans are being tapped. Gore makes the point in his speech that authoritarianism and secrecy cause incompetence. It is not an accidental byproduct. Anyone who needs more proof should think about the clear evidence that communications about the actual 9/11 attacks were available beforehand and got lost in the shuffle. The Administration’s idea of a “solution” is to make a hugely bigger shuffle and read Grandma’s library records. Without a warrant.

Once again, we’re being told not to look at the constitutional crisis. The Administration, for obvious reasons, would rather we didn’t look. Congress suffers from vast money hunger, brought on by the need to buy broadcast time, and has little attention for anything else. The judiciary is supposed to keep its mouth shut. That leaves the media.

The US media are run for profit. Entertainment is more, well, entertaining than information. So the news only gets out to the extent that viewers are entertained by it. It has to be gripping and not annoying to the viewer. Constitutional crises are neither.

The situation seems hopeless, but who knows, maybe those who have a dream can pull us back from the brink again. Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

When do we start?

Elizabeth Holtzman, The Impeachment of George W. Bush, The Nation, Jan 30, 2006

Gore’s Martin Luther King Day speech

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, A Power Outage on Capitol Hill

Avedon Carol, Sideshow, On Media
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo

Some earlier posts on this blog that are relevant: Democracy Doesn’t Work, as well as posts about torture, conservatives, redistricting, and most of the blog, in fact….

Information about the 2000 election:
Maia Cowan Failure is impossible
with details in: Paul Lukasiak Lost Votes and Stolen Election

*From the latter:
FS 101.5614(4) specifies that every ballot containing a potential write-in vote must be examined by a human being, and that the ballots must be counted separately from the machine-counted ballots.

…For each ballot or ballot and ballot envelope on which write-in votes have been cast, the canvassing board shall compare the write-in votes with the votes cast on the ballot card; if the total number of votes for any office exceeds the number allowed by law, a notation to that effect, specifying the office involved, shall be entered on the back of the ballot card or in a margin if voting areas are printed on both sides of the ballot card. Such votes shall not be counted. All valid votes shall be tallied by the canvassing board.

[Note: as I understand it, the votes in question did not involve *conflict* between the candidate marked in the machine-scannable part of the form and the write-in name. Instead *both* mark and write-in were present. The irony is that the voters were trying to emphasize their support for the chosen candidate. It also meant the ballots could not be read by machine, but they were not "overvotes." Only one candidate was selected on the ballot.]

FS 101.5614(8) makes it clear that write-in votes and manually counted votes are to be tallied separately from machine-tabulated votes.

The return printed by the automatic tabulating equipment, to which has been added the return of write-in, absentee, and manually counted votes, shall constitute the official return of the election.

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The Real Moral Hazard of Medical Insurance

It came as news to me that there was a moral hazard associated with health insurance. I thought it was a way of paying for medical care. But what the economists mean by it–economists seem to feel that they own the words and can use them to mean whatever they like–what the economists mean is the Halliburton Effect. When someone else is paying, you don’t care how much it costs.

Well, yes, people are always willing to waste other people’s money. A moment’s thought, however, says that this is not a big factor for patients. As Uwe Reinhardt, an economist at Princeton, points out, “Moral hazard is overblown.. … People who are very well insured, … do you see them check into the hospital because it’s free? Do people really like to go to the doctor? Do they check into the hospital instead of playing golf?” (from Gladwell, New Yorker, Aug. 29, 2005. Link below.)

It has to be said that some people do go to the doctor for nothing. They may be hypochondriacs, slackers, or just plain weird. The question is whether this is a big enough factor to affect the costs we all pay. The answer is yes, but not because there are so many slackers. It’s because we spend so much money trying to make sure there aren’t any.

Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent New Yorker article on this topic summarized the depressing statistics:

“Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and half times the industrialized world’s median of $2,193; the extra spending comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. What does that extra spending buy us? Americans have fewer doctors per capita than most Western countries. We go to the doctor less than people in other Western countries. We get admitted to the hospital less frequently than people in other Western countries. We are less satisfied with our health care than our counterparts in other countries. American life expectancy is lower than the Western average. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States are lower than average. Infant-mortality rates are in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations. Doctors here perform more high-end medical procedures, such as coronary angioplasties, than in other countries, but most of the wealthier Western countries have more CT scanners than the United States does, and Switzerland, Japan, Austria, and Finland all have more MRI machines per capita. Nor is our system more efficient. The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year–or close to four hundred billion dollars–on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance. A country that displays an almost ruthless commitment to efficiency and performance in every aspect of its economy–a country that switched to Japanese cars the moment they were more reliable, and to Chinese T-shirts the moment they were five cents cheaper–has loyally stuck with a health-care system that leaves its [uninsured] citizenry pulling out their teeth with pliers.

We can take it as proven that moral hazard does not apply to patients’ spending, and that preventing it increases costs instead of reducing them. (Hardly surprising, since we’re pouring money into something that doesn’t exist.) It also increases costs in a direct and bad way by discouraging people from getting preventive care.

And yet, having said all that, there really is a moral hazard associated with medical insurance. Not in the economists’ sense, but in the real one. To see why, consider biology.

The point to being a social animal is that we band together to survive. Individuals sometimes do things for the group that don’t benefit them directly because when others do the same thing, it does benefit them. There’s a give and take. Even capuchin monkeys, which have brains the size of an orange (a small one), have recently been shown to have a sense of fairness and to get huffy when it’s violated. (See, e.g. Science News for a popular summary. Original article available on paid subscription, Sarah Brosnan and Frans deWaal, Animal behavior: Fair refusal by capuchin monkeys. Nature, Sept. 18, 2003, 428: p. 140)

Something rooted so deeply in who we are is not optional. It’s right up there with the desire for sex, children, or friends. Pain, for instance, is processed differently when it is in a good cause, such as childbirth or surgery, than when it is in a bad cause, such as torture. If people could switch off that aspect of abusive pain, they would, but I’ve never heard of anyone who could do it. We have a huge need to feel that things are fair.

The need for fairness, perversely, makes us justify our own bad acts as fair (known officially as the “theory of cognitive dissonance”). Most people aren’t totally stupid, so on some level we know that’s what we’re doing. Then we have to justify them more loudly. Better yet, we do them again to prove that doing them the first time was a good idea. Then we have to raise the volume another notch and keep doing whatever it takes to avoid admitting we were wrong.

Letting other people die on the street violates the essence of what any social creature is about. If we let it happen when our own lives are not in danger, we go into a spiral of self-justification from which the only exit is admitting we did something wrong. Many people would rather die than admit any such thing. If other people are doing the dying, so much the more reason to go on doing it.

And that is the real moral hazard of the US system of health insurance. It turns us into people even monkeys would blackball.

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Executive above the law

I don’t do much in the way of posting directly on current events. (As I said in the last post, I don’t think fast enough to keep up with the many people who are much better at it.) But this was just too good to pass up.

Via Avedon Carol at The Sideshow:

Where have we heard this before? Saddam Hussein’s defense against his indictment by an ad hoc Iraqi tribunal is simply that as the head of the state he had unlimited power to defend the state. That enemies of the state did not have legal protection, and therefore he cannot be charged for what he did during that time.

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My not-so-excellent cell phone adventure

Before somebody finds out, I’ll say it up front: I hate phones. I hate the way they ring at you and make you leap out of your seat. I hate the disembodied voices unmoored from any actual human being. And most of all, I hate the need to think on my feet. My mind doesn’t move that fast.

So, on the whole, I’d be quite happy with a landline phone I could quietly keep unplugged. A few years ago, just in time for the twenty first century, I was dragged kicking and grumbling into the twentieth. Somehow, entirely by accident, my cell phone tended to be off a lot.

Then came the phones that weren’t phones. Or weren’t just phones. They were PDAs, they were web browsers, they were restaurant finders. One could set their ringers to play “‘enery the eighth I am, I am….” I began to get excited.

The main thing for which I’ve used my Palm Pilot is writing occasional snippets in parking lots, on the tedious parts of trips, and the like. Unfortunately, every PDA-type phone I tried in stores had impossible keyboards. My hands aren’t as big as a bunch of bananas, but they’re not small enough to use those keyboards without major frustration. And the five hundred dollar prices, give or take a hundred or so, were on the frustrating side too. So I coveted, but things didn’t go further than that.

Then came the LG vx9800. It’s a thick candy bar shape when closed, and opens on the long side to a usable qwerty keyboard and good screen. It wasn’t too heavy, it could take miniSD memory cards big enough to hold entire books, and it seemed all-around marvelous. By this time, I was rather cross with Verizon, who was offering the phone. (It’s a long story, but involves the usual useless hours on the phone with customer “service.” And then there’s Verizon’s attitude problem about municipal free wifi.) But I was so taken with the vx9800, I renewed for another two years, plus over $200 for the phone and accoutrements.

The feature list you see in Verizon’s sales material is heavy on GettingItNow (now, now, now!) from Verizon, but oddly silent on what you can actually do with the phone. I was told you could do lots of stuff. And besides, who would put an excellent screen and keyboard on a phone and then make them unusable, right? Right?

Wrong, of course. It took me days to find out, but there was literally nothing, *nothing*, you could do with that keyboard except send text messages (at ten cents a message), and those were limited to 300 characters. You could save pictures to the minidisk, but not text. Go figure. How is it any kind of skin of Verizon’s massive nose if you want to save text rather than picture files? I can’t imagine, but they’d made it impossible.

And I do mean impossible. The phone uses the Brew operating system (aka Get-It-Now, EasyEdge, etc.), whose cardinal feature seems to be that it locks the phone down to whatever the seller wants it to be. Not the buyer. The seller. Bitpim is a great piece of open source software that provides an alternate route to using the features of supported phones (see under Phones), but Brew is a no-go zone. As Roger Binns, one of the developers, explained it to me: “Brew applications can only be made with the agreement of the carrier and testing via Qualcomm. You also have to have a revenue sharing arrangement with Qualcomm and the carrier. … Bottom line: If I wanted to make an application available to Verizon phones, it would cost me around $6,000 a year plus certification fees for each new model as they came out and Verizon would have to agree it to and would insist on charging a fee so they could take a cut.”* I guess customers aren’t the only people Verizon treats like dirt.

A workaround would be to use web access and something like google mail to write whatever you needed in a webmail account. Basic web access on Verizon’s plan costs an extra six dollars a month plus per-usage fees, and unlimited is an extra fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars. Plus airtime. On top of all the other money they’d already gotten and were getting.

It seemed that the couple of hundred dollars I’d just paid Verizon bought me nothing but the privilege of being a cash cow for them. I was so offended, I returned the phone, much as I loved it. I’m back to having one of those phones which, inexplicably, ends up turned off.

So what should I have done, in hindsight? Don’t buy a locked-down phone. Java-based (J2ME) phones are more open to third-party applications and are a much better bet. Dan Fitton’s site has good explanations and links to the universe of java-type phones. Wikipedia, as usual, has excellent info: In the US, as of Dec 2005, Nokia phones generally fit that type, as well as Blackberries, some of the Motorolas and the Samsungs. TMobile offered the most different kinds of J2ME phones.

A cool cell phone service finder, which lets you specify phone features (but not operating systems) and your area providers is And on another tangential note, Paul English’s site has all kinds of useful cell phone info, including a list of shortcuts through the voicemail thickets of many megacorps.

The future looks interesting, unless the megacorps(es) lock it down. EVDO is a wireless broadband protocol adopted by many CDMA-based cellphone providers (i.e. most of the Americas, Japan, etc.). (Europe, which uses GSM-based services, is getting off to a slowish start through greed before the market could bear it. The acronyms there, besides GSM, are GPRS and EDGE. See Wikipedia for more detail.) To the untutored mind like mine, the easiest way to understand it is to think of wifi, but with a several-mile instead of several-feet range from the transmitter, and the transmitters are cell phone towers which are already spread everywhere. In effect, we could have broadband wifi accessible anywhere there are cellphone towers, and that means one could use voip (like Skype or Vonage) everywhere, too.

Officially, the taxpayers own the airwaves, which are merely loaned to the providers currently using them. So, legally, wireless utopia should be possible. Practically, it’s going to be another story. You can safely bet that business will use its ownership of the towers to charge extortionist prices for use of the airwaves it doesn’t own. And cellphone providers would probably rather die than facilitate wireless voip.

So maybe we should help them. Vote with your wallet for the least pernicious providers, and vote in elections for a consumer-friendly government that actually amounts to something.

*More info on Roger’s LG vx4400 developers site, and the Qualcomm developers site for the whole nine yards.

Update: This just in, as they say.
On AmericaBlog: Anyone can buy a list of your incoming and outgoing phone calls, cell or land-line, for $110 online. FBI, police, Congress, you, me, and our Aunt Tillie. The company doing this is getting that info from–I’m sure you’re surprised–the phone companies, who are apparently peddling it to them for a profit. Reported in July 2005 in the Washington Post, and a couple of days ago by Frank Main in the Chicago Sun Times.

And via Engadget: Microsoft blocking MP3s on Verizon Wireless phones? “…users aren’t being warned ahead of time that they’ll lose MP3 playing functionality by upgrading their phones. … You know, if the customer didn’t always come first with these big corps we’d really be in trouble, folks.” [emphasis mine]

[typo fixed and another wikipedia link added, Jan 8.]

Update, Jan 12: AmericaBlog just bought Gen. Wesley Clark’s phone records which was enough to (finally) get media attention. CBS News is going to report on the cell records privacy scandal tonight (1/12/06) on their evening news broadcast. T-Mobile, mentioned in my post, unfortunately seems to be one of the companies busily selling info. Verizon, much as I hate to admit it, does not.

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