Monday, September 28, 2009

Ross Douthat Defends Bush

Douthat starts his latest column by listing the successes of the Bush years:

Last week, the Census Bureau released a statistical report on the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. The numbers were brutal. On every indicator, Americans lost ground during the Bush era. The median income slumped. The poverty rate increased. The percentage of Americans without health insurance rose.

Let's not forget the disastrous financial bubble, which has led to the worst depression in at least 50 years, 9/11, going from a $230 billion surplus to a trillion dollar deficit, the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, a horrific war in Iraq and another one in Afghanistan, and the destruction of American goodwill wordwide.

But hey, other than that, it was a pretty good run.

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

So Iraq has gone from an unmitigated disaster to a slightly mitigated one. Does anyone think that things are looking up over there? Is Douthat seriously trying to say that he made amends with the troop surge? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead.

And if that's not a stupid enough statement, he follows it up by commending Bush for handing over trillions of dollars of wealth to rich banks, at taxpayer expense, without asking for anything in return. This is supposed to make us feel better about 10% unemployment and record foreclosures?

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized.

Seriously, this was written on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. The most famous paper on earth.

If by canonized, he means put on the Mt. Rushmore of worst presidents ever, he would still be wrong. Because Bush needs his own mountain, and it should be bigger than all the rest, and on a different planet somewhere. Because the entire universe should know exactly how horrible a president he was.

On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson — but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact.

So, after years of unsuccessful military escalation, and thousands of US deaths, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, a record deficit and the accomplishment of virtually nothing meaningful except uniting the world in disgust at our country, Bush has salvaged all of what? Being so hated that the war that is associated with him is easier to let go? I think this is what he's saying.

Bush-era bipartisanship did produce some defensible legislation (No Child Left Behind, for instance).

(not defensible at all)

But more often, it produced travesties like the failed attempt at “comprehensive” immigration reform, lobbyist feeding frenzies like the 2005 energy bill, and boondoggles like the Department of Homeland Security.

...or the Medicare prescription handout to the Pharmaceutical Companies. Or the status as the country that has, by far, the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Or our newfound commitment to torturing people we don't like.

This is not a blueprint that future presidents will want to follow. But the next time an Oval Office occupant sees his popularity dissolve and his ambitions turn to dust, he can take comfort from Bush’s example. It suggests that it’s possible to become a good president even — or especially — when you can no longer hope to be a great one.

No Ross, it suggest nothing of the kind.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sanitization of American Life Part 357,589

From the AP:

HONOLULU (Sept. 2) -- Stinky city bus riders soon could get soaked. The Honolulu City Council is considering a bill that would impose up to a $500 fine and/or up to six months in jail for public transit passengers convicted of being too smelly.

The bill will be heard Thursday in committee. It would make it illegal to have "odors that unreasonably disturb others or interfere with their use of the transit system." It doesn't matter if it's body odor or offensive fumes that emanates from clothes, personal belongings or animals.
Councilmen Rod Tam and Nestor Garcia co-sponsored the anti-odor bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii says it is concerned with laws that are inherently vague, which opens the door to discriminatory enforcement based on an officer's individual prejudices.

This is a law against homeless people who want to ride buses, basically. Just another milepost on the road to outlawing homelessness altogether.

And the police in this country have shown that they will use any excuse they can to arrest people. Giving them another excuse is insane.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Was just too cool to pass up...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This Is Happening Today...

President Obama is considering escalating the unjust war in Afghanistan, where the United States is already killing innocent people every day.

Instead of a blog post today, I'm submitting this slideshow. I wrote and recorded the soundtrack for it today, and I hope you'll find the six minutes to watch and listen. This is what our government is doing; this is what we are doing. Thanks for your time...

Health Care Utilities

From a letter to Andrew Sullivan:

I'm an American who has also decided to leave the US. However, it's not because of HIV status. It's because of my concerns over healthcare. You see, my European wife has a chronic disease that worsened soon after we moved to the US two years ago. I have insurance, but with a sick wife and two children, our bills are quite high. Worse, should I ever change jobs, or get fired, I have no doubt our insurer would drop us, or at least dramatically increase our premiums.

I'm a senior exec in a software company. I've always wanted to run my own company, and I have an idea that I think will work.
But we'll move back to Europe before I take that risk. In the US, I just cannot be without healthcare for any length of time. I wonder how many other potential entrepreneurs are discouraged from striking out on their own for this very reason?

I'm constantly hearing from libertarian types who wax poetic about the importance of choice in health care, as though there is some big difference between the insurance options we have (or, sillier still, as though we are actually informed enough to differentiate between them.)

But they never seem concerned about how people are tied to their jobs, unable to leave to do something more productive because they will lose their health coverage. It's important to note that they are not reducing the cost of their care by staying; they are only reducing the cost of their care to them.

Progressives have compared universal health care to public water systems, sewers, fire departments and police. And the comparison is apt. What do all of these things have in common? We all need them. Every single one of us.

Health care is a basic need. Everyone should have access. Can you imagine what the country would be like today if corporations controlled the public water supply?

We would have hundreds of different companies, all using complex and sophisticated billing processes, designed to confuse the drinker. We would have wasteful marketing campaigns, all designed to convince you that one company's water was better than the next's, but you would have no way of testing this. We would have water company executives making enormous profits from water sales, which they would justify by saying that water is too important to leave to the government. We would have a legion of water lobbyists in Washington, fighting every attempt by the people to turn water into a public utility by saying that liberals just wanted to kill people from thirst. We would have the world's most expensive tap water, and we would have corporations that threatened to turn that water off if people couldn't pay. Instead of a simple system which just delivers water to people, we would have a complex system where people worried about how to keep the water flowing.

We must start recognizing health care a universal necessity, instead of some optional luxury. Those in the profession probably can't stand to hear it, but health care is generally a rather mundane business. Of course, there are exciting new things being discovered at the margins, and we should find ways to continue to promote this research. But for the overwhelming majority of Americans, health care is little more than a public utility. And 45,000 people a year die because they don't have access to this utility. Let's free them from that worry. .

Sunday, September 20, 2009

War on Terror is Now a CounterInsurgency

From NYT:

Admiral Mullen, called before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify for his nomination to serve a second term as chairman, said that no specific request for more troops had yet been received from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

“But I do believe that — having heard his views and having great confidence in his leadership — a properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces, and, without question, more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance,” Admiral Mullen said

So now we're not even pretending that it has anything to do with terrorists? Why are we there again?

The Taliban is mounting an insurgency against the corrupt regime which we helped to install. Both sides are reprehensible. We cannot defeat the Taliban. They just want us out of the way. Afghanistan poses no security threat to the United States, outside of the threat of Al Qaeda, which has largely moved to Pakistan. If we persist in meddling in Afghanistan, and killing more and more of their people, we will further radicalize the Taliban, and provide more and more recruits for radical organizations.

Why are we there? Because we need to justify the enormous amount of human life and money we've wasted already. And that's about it. Apparently, wasting more is the solution.

Harvard Medical School: 45,000 Americans Die Each Year Because They Lack Health Insurance

Here's something we could fix right now...

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year -- one every 12 minutes -- in large part because they lack health insurance and can not get good care, Harvard Medical School researchers found in an analysis released on Thursday.

"We're losing more Americans every day because of inaction ... than drunk driving and homicide combined," Dr. David Himmelstein, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, said in an interview with Reuters.

Unfortunately, we may not be able to do anything about this because Republicans are screaming that we can't afford it.

Maybe they have a point. We do have budget priorities, after all. We have to think about the $1 trillion dollars we've spent fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's the $50 billion that we spend each year on the War on Drugs, which, while useless, does make sure that the prison/industrial complex keeps getting paid. And don't forget the $4 trillion we spent this year on bailing out big banks. Because our government can't govern effectively it its close friends lose their yachts.

With all these expenses, it's easy to see why spending $1 trillion over ten years, to save only 45,000 lives, just doesn't make sense.

Here's Who We Are Bailing Out

Illinois' Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo, alleging that it

...illegally discriminated against African American and Latino homeowners by selling them high-cost subprime mortgage loans while white borrowers with similar incomes received lower cost loans...

...The lawsuit also follows a recent Chicago Reporter analysis of mortgage data submitted by Wells Fargo to the federal government. That study found that, in 2007, Wells Fargo sold high-cost, subprime loans more often to its highest-earning African-American borrowers in Chicago than to its lowest-earning white borrowers. According to the study, in 2007, about 34 percent of African Americans earning $120,000 or more received high cost mortgages from Wells Fargo in the Chicago metro area, while less than 22 percent of white borrowers earning less than $40,000 received high-cost mortgages from the lender.

“These disparities indicate that something is very wrong with Wells Fargo’s mortgage lending,” said Madigan. “They strongly suggest that the predictor of whether a borrower would receive a high-cost home loan from Wells Fargo was race, not income.”

This, of course, is the same Wells Fargo that received $25 Billion in federal bailout money via the TARP program.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

This is really worth reading. It's a poignant example of how right-wing xenophobia manifested itself in this country. Here a teaser, but you should really click here and read it all:

So Latino families can at least worship in peace, a few Sodus citizens stand weekly vigil outside Spanish Mass at the Church of the Epiphany, to keep the Border Patrol away.

In the midst of all the fear, hate and anger that many people feel over immigration, and it's exaggerated effects on our economy and culture, we often forget that these are real people, not much different from us, and for whom the world is a much tougher and scarier place. Let's all remember that.

Fair and Balanced? reports that Fox was helping to rally to the crowd at the 9-12 Tea Bag party:

On Friday, Fox News boasted in a print ad that other network missed the tea party protest on 9/12, despite the fact that CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS were all there covering it. (CNN shot back in an ad of their own).

But it turns out that while Fox was covering the protest, a Fox producer, at one point, rallied the crowd to cheer while Griff Jenkins was on camera. Media Matters caught this clip a few days back, but now Fox confirms that it was, indeed, a staffer.

This barely even raises an eyebrow these days. Media Matters writes:

Fox News now routinely engages in political advocacy against the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress, and Beck’s promotion of a September 12 march on Washington is the latest example. Network executives have made little effort to hide Fox News’ agenda, with one referring to the network as the “voice of opposition.”

“There is little difference between being the ‘voice of opposition’ and just being the opposition,” said Eric Burns, president of Media Matters. “Since the president’s election, Fox News has become nothing more than the 24/7 media wing of the Republican Party. No political party in American history has had such an enormous megaphone.”

This is journalism? They have their right to free speech and all, but we all be aware that this is not a "news" organization. They are more concerned with making news than reporting on it. One of their employees (Beck) organizes and promotes a rally in Washington. Fox then promotes it constantly through "reporting". One of their producers gets up and rallies the crowd. How is this reporting?

It's probably time to retire that "Fair and Balanced" slogan.

Rush: We Need to Go Back to Segregated Buses!

This quote ought to speak for itself

In a remark extraordinary even by the standards of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio heavyweight declared on his program Wednesday that the United States needed to return to racially segregated buses.

Referring to an incident in which a white student was beaten by black students on a bus, Limbaugh said: “I think the guy’s wrong. I think not only it was racism, it was justifiable racism. I mean, that’s the lesson we’re being taught here today. Kid shouldn’t have been on the bus anyway. We need segregated buses — it was invading space and stuff. This is Obama’s America.”

I guess it would be pointless to ask if he has no shame.

Obama on Afghanistan

From the New York Times:

“I am now going to take all this information,” he (Obama) said on ABC’s “This Week,” “and we’re going to test whatever resources we have against our strategy, which is if by sending young men and women into harm’s way, we are defeating Al Qaeda and, and that can be shown to a skeptical audience, namely me — somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops, then we will do what’s required to keep the American people safe.

Considering the fact that we are no longer fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but rather a Taliban insurgency, if we take Obama at his word we will not be sending more troops there. And we should be bringing our troops home.

I don't like the Taliban. But they are not a terrorist group. Our mission in Afghanistan has morphed from one of tracking down and capturing or killing Al Qaeda members, to a counter-insurgency role. We cannot win this fight. And in the process of losing it, we will radicalize hundreds of thousands of tribal Afghans and Pakistanis who otherwise wouldn't care one way or another about the US. On top of this, we are killing innocent people, and getting our troops killed.

It's time to end this war.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bring Back the Draft!

I posted earlier tonight about the myths of free markets. I was reminded about an example in an economics textbook that shows that a volunteer army is more economically efficient than a drafted army. Uwe Rheinhardt put it well when he wrote this in the Washington Post in 2006:

Here, for example, is how University of Rochester economics professor Steven E. Landsburg made the case for the volunteer army in his textbook "Price Theory and Applications." Under a military draft, he writes, "the Selective Service Board will draft young people who are potentially brilliant brain surgeons, inventors and economists -- young people with high opportunity costs of entering the service -- and will leave undrafted some young people with much lower opportunity costs. The social loss is avoided under a voluntary system, in which precisely those with the lowest costs will volunteer."

Only slightly more crudely put, the central idea underlying this theorem of what economists call "social welfare economics" is that if a nation must use human bodies to stop bullets and shrapnel, it ought to use relatively "low-cost" bodies -- that is, predominantly those who would otherwise not have produced much gross domestic product, the main component of what economists call "social opportunity costs." On this rationale, economists certify the all-volunteer army as efficient and thus good.

Here is a market working more or less as it's designed and still coming up with an outcome that many people could only charitably describe as flawed. I'll remind you again what Peter Schiff says:

The solution to health care is the same solution to anything -- the same way we have a solution to clothing or food. It's the free market

Here is a market that produces what at first glance seems to be an "efficient" outcome. It sends poor people to war, and makes sure that the educated or socially connected stay out of harm's way. And while this may seem cruel, this is what free marketers have in mind for us. It is, after all, an efficient outcome, right?

Actually, no.

Even if you believe that maximizing production is more important than all of the us taking equal responsibility for our national defense, this "market" has a flaw that is completely overlooked by the simplistic analysis that Rheinhardt describes above. And that flaw is that it ignores the fact that a country which is run by people who are not personally affected by the tragedies of war are far more likely to engage in it, and all those wars will come with huge costs-human lives, suffering, and erosion of national security. Not to mention the enormous financial cost of war. These costs can easily outweigh the benefits of keeping the Bush twins out of Bagdad, but they won't even be mentioned in the analysis of the volunteer army.

In fact, a country that might draft the Bush girls probably would not have killed hundreds of thousand of people, spent trillions of dollars, and destroyed every ounce of international goodwill in the pursuit of two unjustified wars.

Peter Schiff for Senate?

The Atlantic has the whole story here, but a choice quote is below: (H/T Shepard Humphries)

The solution to health care is the same solution to anything -- the same way we have a solution to clothing or food. It's the free market; its' individual entrepreneurs; it's competition; it's the profit motive; it's the invisible hand; it's everything that made this country great. We need to get government out of health care so we can bring private market forces back into it, and we can have individuals empowered to make their own choices, let doctors compete on quality and on price. And we can do that if we roll back government. But if we go in the direction of the Obama administration, we're gonna compound the problem. We'll gonna drive health care costs even higher, and we're gonna drive quality lower.

First, in the real world, the only way we can empower people to make informed choices on their health care is to send everyone to medical school. I think this might drive health care costs higher. And if people can't make informed choices, then competition is a sham.

The second problem is that no matter how much you empower someone with an expensive, chronic, and life-threatening disease to make choices, they aren't going to be able to afford the treatment. Which means that either healthy people are going to have to help pay for sick people, or we are going to let sick people die.

There really is no way around this. There is literally no example, ever, of a modern, workable health care system that does not involve redistribution of income.

And there is literally no example, ever, anywhere, except in fiction and the Chicago Boys textbooks, of a true free-market economy that works.

There just isn't.

Also, reread this part:

The solution to health care is the same solution to anything -- the same way we have a solution to clothing or food. It's the free market; its' individual entrepreneurs; it's competition; it's the profit motive; it's the invisible hand; it's everything that made this country great.

I'm sorry, but this is just lazy thinking. It's taking a theory, namely, Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand, and deciding, against all the available evidence, that it should be applied to every situation in which any good or service needs to be allocated. It's reflexive, at this point. Schiff is explicitly saying that the solution to any problem is to use a free market. According to him, there is no need to actually analyze the particular problem at hand. Whatever it is, a free market will fix it. And this is done even though economists have known-since the advent of the railroad industry and the resulting dominance of long-term fixed capital-that truly free markets often lead to undesirable outcomes.

If Peter Schiff wants to make an empirical argument for using markets to reform health care, I will listen. But as long as he continues to rely on a 200 year-old theory that's based on a make-believe world, then I will assume that he is just full of shit.

Tea Bagger Logic

Sadness and hilarity all rolled together. Just watch:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Journalism: Epic Fail

The House has officially shown it's disapproval of Rep. Joe Wilson for his outburst of "You Lie", which was directed at President Obama during his address to Congress last week.

This whole sorry affair is a window into the way Washington operates, and in particular, the epic failures of mainstream journalism.

For the record, I don't care if Joe Wilson pissed on Joe Biden's desk during the speech; it's just not that important. And if Joe Wilson really believes that the president is lying, well, then he should probably say so.

But the media reaction has been pathetic. I watched an hour or so of cable news the day after this happened, and one thing is clear: they have absolutely no interest in finding out whether the president was lying or not.

Think about this. Pretend, for a moment, that you are a journalist. Your job is to find out important facts and then communicate them to the public. You are watching the president make a speech, when a congressman interrupts him and says that he is lying.

Do you:

A) Investigate whether this important allegation is true?

or do you

B) Spend countless hours bickering over whether it was rude for him to raise the subject?

The answer, of course, is "B". This is the sorry state of "journalism" in this country today.

Mainstream journalists just cover the soap opera. They are concerned with how things will look. They spend hours and days analyzing how they think the public will respond to certain policy proposals. They quote poll after poll after poll on subjects like Afghanistan, or health care reform, or torture, or the bailouts of Wall Street.

But the one thing they avoid like the plague is analyzing the actual policies! I don't care one bit how many people want us to escalate the war in Afghanistan; I want to know if it will work. I don't give a damn if 80% of 30-35 year old southern white Republican males think Obama was born in Kenya; I want to know if he was born in Kenya!

The opinions of all of these people don't matter unless they are informed. And it is the job of journalists to inform them! And they fail miserably at this job. And we fail miserably at our job, which is to hold them accountable for their failure.

Most of us treat politics like a sporting event. We just want to watch politicians score points, and win. And mainstream journalists aren't really much different than the guys on "Around the Horn".( Actually that's not really true; those guys actually do some analysis from time to time.)

Mainstream journalism exists mostly to perpetuate the status quo in Washington. But they know that they have to seem like they are practicing adversarial journalism, so they seize on these stupid, meaningless events (like Joe Wilson's outburst), and saturate the airwaves with endless bloviating about them in order to distract from the real issues.

If you doubt me, ask yourself if you ever heard anyone from the major cable news networks actually investigate and make a definitive statement about whether the president was lying. I will be shocked if you did, because the number one goal over there at CNN and Fox and CNBC is to feed you a steady stream of entertaining nonsense, so that you will feel as though you are doing your civic duty by getting involved in the important issues of today. And all the while, politicians will do what they want since you are not paying attention.

And if Americans really think that Joe Wilson's manners are one of the most important issues of the day, then may God have mercy on our souls.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Taibbi on Goldman

As usual, Taibbi is on top of it:

So what’s wrong with Goldman posting $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits, what’s wrong with the company so far earmarking $11.4 billion in compensation for its employees? What’s wrong is that this is not free-market earnings but an almost pure state subsidy.

Last year, when Hank Paulson told us all that the planet would explode if we didn’t fork over a gazillion dollars to Wall Street immediately, the entire rationale not only for TARP but for the whole galaxy of lesser-known state crutches and safety nets quietly ushered in later on was that Wall Street, once rescued, would pump money back into the economy, create jobs, and initiate a widespread recovery. This, we were told, was the reason we needed to pilfer massive amounts of middle-class tax revenue and hand it over to the same guys who had just blown up the financial world. We’d save their asses, they’d save ours. That was the deal.

It turned out not to happen that way. We constructed this massive bailout infrastructure, and instead of pumping that free money back into the economy, the banks instead simply hoarded it and ate it on the spot, converting it into bonuses. So what does this Goldman profit number mean? This is the final evidence that the bailouts were a political decision to use the power of the state to redirect society’s resources upward, on a grand scale. It was a selective rescue of a small group of chortling jerks who must be laughing all the way to the Hamptons every weekend about how they fleeced all of us at the very moment the game should have been up for all of them.

Now, the counter to this charge is, well, hey, they made that money fair and square, legally, how can you blame them? They’re just really smart!

Bullshit. One of the most hilarious lies that has been spread about Goldman of late is that, since it repaid its TARP money, it’s now free and clear of any obligation to the government - as if that was the only handout Goldman got in the last year. Goldman last year made your average AFDC mom on food stamps look like an entrepreneur. Here’s a brief list of all the state aid that is hiding behind that $3.44 billion number they announced the other day. In no particular order:

1. The AIG bailout. Goldman might have gone out of business last year if AIG had been allowed to proceed to an ordinary bankruptcy, as AIG owed Goldman about $20 billion at the time it went into a death spiral. Instead, Goldman gets to call upon its former chief, Hank Paulson, who green-lights this massive, $80 billion bailout of AIG (with Lloyd Blankfein in the room), at least $12.9 billion of which went straight to Goldman. Moreover, let’s not forget this: both Goldman and Bank Societe Generale had been tattooing AIG with collateral calls in the period before AIG’s collapse, with Goldman extracting a full $5.9 billion from the company during that time. It was those collateral calls that really killed AIG.

Now, ask yourself: exactly how big would Goldman’s profits be this year, if they had to fill a still-extant $13 billion or even a $20 billion hole on its balance sheet from AIG’s collapse? You think it would still be $3.44 billion? What if Hank Paulson had elected to save Lehman instead of saving AIG/Goldman, how big would Goldman’s profits be then? Is anyone even asking this question?

I keep hearing people say, “Well, so what — it’s only fair that Goldman got paid off for its deals with AIG. After all, AIG was contractually obligated to Goldman. Goldman deserves that money, because it was doing the right thing in buying insurance from AIG in the first place.”

That’s bullshit, too. As Rich Bennett over at the hilarious monkey business blog pointed out to me the other day, Goldman was insane and reckless in making those deals with AIG. Goldman wasn’t removing risk from its books by buying CDS protection from AIG, they were exchanging one kind of risk for another kind of risk, counterparty risk. “If you have too much risk to one entity and they go bust, you’re shit outta luck,” Rich says. “They took AIG for a ride, and when the music stopped, they and their partners were going to be taking up the proverbial tookus.”

So to review: Goldman makes insane bets, runs wild on AIGFP’s house idiot Joe Cassano for a while, sticking him with $20 billion in risk, and when it all went to shit — as it inevitably had to — they drove a big stake through AIG’s heart and got the government to step in and pay them off using our money. How’s that for market capitalism? Just like Adam Smith drew it up, right? They’re just smart guys!

2. TARP. Much discussed, no need to really review here. Goldman got its $10 billion. It paid off its $10 billion. Good for them. However, there’s one thing to note here, and it hasn’t been mentioned really at all in the press. It is continually reported that now that Goldman has repaid its TARP money, it no longer has restrictions on its executive compensation. That’s actually not true. The government still holds warrants from Goldman and other companies that it acquired during the TARP process, and until the banks pay off those warrants (and they’re all already trying to pay them off at below market prices), the Treasury still technically has the authority to prevent lavish bonuses. Not that that will happen, of course, and this is yet another government handout — a firmer government would be hard on Goldman to the end of the process, while this government is doing its matador job and waving through these massive bonuses early on in the repayment schedule.

3. The Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. So Goldman last year converts from an investment bank to bank holding company status, which now makes it eligible for a new program that gives commercial banks FDIC backing for unsecured debt. This is not a direct subsidy in the sense of us actually handing over a bunch of money to Goldman, but it’s almost better, in a way. This basically hands over a free AAA rating to the big banks and allows them access to mountains of cheap money, with all of us on the hook if something went wrong. This is the equivalent of telling Exxon it can take crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at below-market rates during an energy crisis and then turn around and sell it on the market at whatever price it wants, and pocket the difference, for the good of God and country. Goldman took full advantage of this deal, issuing $28 billion in FDIC-backed debt after its conversion. Exactly how hard is it for a bank to make a profit when it has unlimited access to virtually free money? It is almost impossible for banks to not make money when their cost of capital sinks this low.

Ask yourself this question: has borrowing money gotten any cheaper for you this year? Did someone from the government walk up to you after you foreclosed on your house or missed payments on your charge card and, as a favor, just because you’re so cool, jack your credit score back up to the 99th percentile and invite you to start all over again? Because that’s what happened to these assholes. They made every bad move you can think of and they not only got a clean credit slate but a vitually ceiling-free spending limit.

4. The Fed Programs. By converting to a bank holding company, Goldman also became eligible for a whole galaxy of new bailout programs administered through the federal reserve like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF); it also became eligible to borrow cheap money from the Fed’s discount window. There is so much to cover here that it would take forever to get to all of it, but the key number to remember here is $2.2 trillion (not billion, trillion). That’s how much the Fed has lent out in assistance since this crisis started and we have no idea how much of it went to Goldman or any other firm, thanks to Ben Bernanke, who refuses to disclose this information. But you can bet that Goldman has taken full advantage of all the various programs designed to relieve the banks of the worthless crap assets they acquired while they were playing roulette the past ten years or so. We just have no idea how much crap they unloaded on the Fed, or how much they borrowed. Would you really bet that it wasn’t much?

5. The TARP Repayment Bonanza. See the story at the top of this piece. As part and parcel of the TARP program, the banks that received money had strict guidelines imposed on them by the state in the area of how they could raise the money to repay. TARP recipients had to issue new equity according to certain parameters, and guess who one of the only major equity underwriters left on Wall Street is? That’s right, Goldman, Sachs. So say International Reckless Dickwad Bank needs to issue $100 million in new stock to pay off TARP; they hire Goldman to do the deal, and since the fee for equity underwriting is 7%, Goldman gets, in essence, a state-mandated $7 million fee. Because so much money was lent out under TARP, the underwriters on Wall Street made a massive bonanza on all the new bank stock. As noted above, Goldman’s equity underwriting department hauled in $736 million this quarter. Does this happen without the bailouts? No. Do the bailouts happen if banks like Goldman hadn’t blown up the universe in the first place? No. You do the math; this is another subsidy.

And that’s just some of the help they’ve gotten. Should we bother to count Goldman’s status as one of just 17 remaining primary dealers in U.S. Treasuries, which naturally did a crisp business last year as the U.S. borrowed its way out of a hole the banks had themselves created? Should we count the ban on short-selling Goldman asked for and got last year? Or how about the seemingly obvious fact that the bank used all of this state assistance and guarantees as a crutch to prop up lots of new risk-taking activity, which was the exact opposite of what was supposed to have been achieved by the bailouts, which were supposed to usher in an new era of austerity and temperance?

As Felix Salmon notes, Goldman last year, after it converted to bank holding company status, announced that it was “taking steps to reduce leverage.” But what’s happened since then is that Goldman has actually been emboldened by all its state backing to borrow more and gamble more than ever. This is the equivalent of a regular casino gambler who hears that the house has doubled down on his credit line and decides to stay up at the tables all night, instead of going home and sobering up. Just look at Goldman’s VaR, or Value at Risk, which measures the amount of money the bank puts at risk on any given day: it’s soared since last year.

Taken altogether, what all of this means is that Goldman’s profit announcement is a giant “fuck you” to the rest of the country. It is a statement of supreme privilege, an announcement that it feels no shame in taking subsidies and funneling them directly into their pockets, and moreover feels no fear of any public response. It knows that it’s untouchable and it’s not going to change its behavior for anyone. And it doesn’t matter who knows it.

There are going to be some people who say that some of this stuff isn’t government subsidy so much as ordinary government contracting. After all, do we criticize Boeing for making airplanes or Electric Boat for making submarines during a war? If we don’t do that, then why should we be pissed about Goldman making a profit underwriting TARP repayment stock issuances, or Treasuries?

The difference is that Boeing and Electric Boat didn’t start the war. But these guys on Wall Street causesd this crisis, and now they’re raking in money on the infrastructure their buddies in government have devised to bail them out. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle — beautiful, in a way, but at the same time sort of uniquely disgusting. That they’re going to get away with it is bad enough — that they’re getting praised for it, for being such smart guys, is damn near intolerable.

There a few things worth mentioning here. Taibbi notes that the fed has lent out $2.2 trillion dollars since the crisis the crisis began. The proposed universal health care reform bill was going to cost $1 trillion over the next 10 years. That kind of puts things in perspective.

Bernanke refuses to disclose to the public where this money went, or what it was used for. The reason given is that it would further weaken banks by identifying the ones who need cash infusions and guarantees. But whatever validity this claim had at the height of the crisis is gone now. There will be no bank runs. Investors know that our government will sell us out and bail these banks out no matter what. And they won't even tell us what happened to our money.

Also, Taibbi misses a point in his analogy between Boeing and Goldman. It probably won't make you feel any better to learn that Boeing and the rest of the defense contractor lobby do actually help start wars, and then continue them, because they make lots of money when military equipment is destroyed and needs to be replaced. It's unfortunate, of course, that their are often young Americans inside this equipment, but that, after all, is just collateral damage in our brave new world.

Monday, September 14, 2009

John Jackson Defends Executing an Innocent Man

The prosecutor who sent the innocent Todd Willingham to the death chamber has written a piece claiming that Willingham's guilt was never in doubt. John Jackson is now a judge; it's well-known that getting a death penalty conviction is good for your chances of a judgeship. Here is his response, along with my comments in bold:

(08-28-09) JACKSON: Guest Commentary - Willingham guilt never in doubt

By the Hon. John Jackson, Guest Columnist
(Originally published Aug. 28, 2009)

The Corsicana Daily Sun missed a golden journalistic opportunity on Thursday by merely reprinting the AP article with respect to the Cameron Todd Willingham murder case. The Daily Sun is in possession of its compete reportage of the early '90's trial and is in a much better position to examine the actual trial evidence elicited.

The Willingham trial has become a sort of cause celebre by anti-death penalty proponents because it seems to be an example of outmoded scientific techniques which led to a miscarriage of justice. In fact, the trial testimony you reported in 1991 contains overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.

Always omitted from any examination of the actual trial are the following facts:

1. The event which caused the three childrens' deaths was the third attempt by Todd Willingham to kill his children established by the evidence. He had attempted to abort both pregnancies by vicious attacks on his wife in which he beat and kicked his wife with the specific intent to trigger miscarriages;

This is not a fact. There was no testimony or evidence that he was tying to do that. Jackson is literally making this up. He admitted that he struck his wife. It's inexcusable. But all the evidence shows that he loved his kids. His wife even testified to this fact.

2. The “well-established burns” suffered by Willingham were so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted in an attempt to divert suspicion from himself;

So the fact that he had superficial burns means he set the fire? Yes, they were "so superficial as to suggest that the same were self-inflicted" if you've already decided that he had tried to kill his kids! Otherwise, you would just think he hadn't been burned badly. And while it may "suggest" something to Jackson, that is not a fact.

3. Blood-gas analysis at Navarro Regional Hospital shortly after the homicide revealed that Willingham had not inhaled any smoke, contrary to his statement which detailed “rescue attempts;

Blood-gas analysis is horseshit. If Jackson knew anything about fire investigating, he would realize this. Or maybe he does, and pretends he doesn't. Furthermore, a lack of smoke at this point in the fire is completely consistent with Beyler's report.

Willingham originally claimed that he tried hard to save his daughters; that he went into the room repeatedly. There have been many inconsistencies with this story. Later, when he was on death row, he admitted that he had made some of that up so people would not wonder why he didn't do more.

When he made this little white lie up, he was not a suspect. He couldn't have imagined that he would become a suspect. And he probably felt guilty for not being able to save his kids- experts have said that people often feel that way-that they can't understand why they can't make themselves go into the heat.

4. Consistent with typical Navarro County death penalty practice, Willingham was offered the opportunity to eliminate himself as a suspect by polygraph examination. Such opportunity was rejected in the most vulgar and insulting manner;

Two points here: Polygraphs are notoriously inaccurate- no one in their right mind would take the prosecution up on this. They are not allowed at trial as evidence for this reason. Jackson surely knows this, and yet he is now offering Williingham's standard refusal to take one as evidence of guilt. Note that he doesn't have a polygraph that indicates Willingham is guilty. He believes that the refusal to take one is evidence in itself.

The second point is that Jackson, incredibly, is using Willingham's impolite demeanor, when declining the polygraph, as evidence of guilt! In other words, Jackson had his feelings hurt!

If I had just lost my children in a house fire, which I had nothing to do with, and then was asked to take a polygraph test to prove my innocence, I believe I would have told the DA to go fuck off. It would not be evidence of guilt

5. Willingham was a serial wife abuser, both physically and emotionally. His violent nature was further established by evidence of his vicious attacks on animals which is common to violent sociopaths;

None of these things are particularly relevant. Lots of people are violent. It does not mean they are likely to burn their children alive. And if he was truly violent, you would expect him to use physical violence against his children, instead of trying to kill them with a fire.

6. Witness statements established that Willingham was overheard whispering to his deceased older daughter at the funeral home, “You're not the one who was supposed to die.” (The origin of the fire occured in the infant twins bedroom) and;

People remember they hear all sorts of things when they've been told someone killed their kids. And as Grann points out in his rebuttal, Willingham could just as well have been saying that he, Willingham, was supposed to die; that he wished he could have traded places with her. Who knows? It was completely ambiguous. It is exactly the kind of evidence that should be disallowed, because it's prejudicial hearsay which is completely open to all sorts of interpretation.

7. Any escape or rescue route from the burning house was blocked by a refrigerator which had been pushed against the back door, requring any person attempting escape to run through the conflagration at the front of the house.

The state's own investigator said that this was irrelevant. And Grann says that Jackson himself said, when he was first researching the story, that this was not a huge factor. Why is he bringing it up now?

Co-counsel Alan Bristol and I offered Willingham the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty in return for a sentence of life imprisonment. Such offer was rejected in an obscene and potentially violent confrontation with his defense counsel.

So Jackson offers Willingham life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Willingham's incompetent attorney advises him to take the deal, because he has no idea how to defend a death penalty case. Willingham tells his attorney to go to hell. And Jackson considers this evidence of his guilt? It's incredible to see a judge write words like this in a newspaper column. That statement alone should have him removed.

The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While anti-death penalty advocates can muster some remarkably good arguments, Todd Willingham should not be anyone's poster child.

At this point, I don't really give a damn about what Jackson is convinced about. As he says, his critics have mustered some remarkably good arguments, and Jackson has failed to refute any of them.

This man played an instrumental role in executing an innocent person, a person who had already suffered the tragedy of losing his children in a fire. He is trying to duck responsibility for that homicide (this is not hyperbole; homicide was listed on Willingham's post-execution death certificate) by repeating the same lies over and over. He clearly has no interest in the factual guilt or innocence of Willingham; he just wants to save his own skin.

I hope I never end up in his court room.

The Racist Drug War

From Human Rights Watch:

Blacks have been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than whites for nearly three decades, even though they engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Using data obtained from the FBI, the report reveals the extent and persistence of racial disparities in US drug-law enforcement. The data also show that most drug arrests are for nothing more serious than possession.

The 20-page report, "Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States," says that adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007, the last year for which complete data were available. About one in three of the more than 25.4 million adult drug arrestees during that period was African American.

"Jim Crow may be dead, but the drug war has never been color-blind," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's US Program and author of the report. "Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs, the heavy hand of the law is more likely to fall on black shoulders"

"Hauling hundreds of thousands of people down to the station house each year because they have some weed or a rock of crack cocaine in their pocket has had little impact on drug use," said Fellner. "But the stigma of a drug arrest, especially if followed by a conviction, limits employment, education and housing opportunities. A more effective, less destructive drug policy would prioritize treatment, education, and positive social investments in poor communities over arrest and incarceration."

As if the fact that the Drug War is stupid, unjust, destructive, and counterproductive wasn't it enough, it's proponents are increasingly coming to the realization that the policies they defend are racist. And what's more, the public is increasingly coming to this realization as well.

We will soon be at the point where the only people who defend this War on (Americans Who Like) Drugs are the loonies who think weed will kill you, and the massive criminal/military/pharmaceutical complex that profits from it.

Oh, and the biggest supporters of them all- the drug cartels.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Executing the Innocent

There is a fantastic article here in the New Yorker about the first case where it seems to have been established beyond a doubt that an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was put to death here in the United States. It's riveting, it's poignant, it's sad, it's outrageous, and it will be the best thing you read all day.

I want to make a few comments about the death penalty, especially regarding the claims that no innocent people are ever put to death. Obviously, there are important moral and social reasons to abolish the death penalty, which I won't even try to get into here.

At the heart of the executionists argument is the belief that the people they kill all deserve it. But if we cannot even determine guilt or innocence, much less whether their actions deserve to be punished by death.

The Willingham case is interesting because it has so many of the features of a broken system that it could be used as a case study in judicial failure. I'll run through a few of these.

Investigation: The initial investigation was conducted by people whose job it is to find arson. This follows a general pattern of state investigators whose incentives are to find evidence of crimes. When the evidence is inconclusive or ambiguous, the tendency on the part of many of these investigators is to interpret them in such a way as to incriminate someone. And a justice system whose objective is to obtain convictions will naturally encourage this sort of interpretation.

This case also highlights the problems with eyewitness testimony. The witnesses apparently changed their testimony, but this was not some isolated incident of people who decided that they wanted to lie and to railroad the defendant. Rather, it's a systemic issue; it's not hard to get people to view and describe the same incident in two radically different ways, depending on their perceptions and the information which they are given. What looked like a man desperately trying to save his children was turned in a man putting on a show for the cops. What changed? Willingham was now a defendant, and so his actions were now being viewed in a different way. Psychologists have shown over and over again how the human mind does this, and that people can convince themselves of just about anything. And yet we still rely on those people in investigations.

The investigation process will also have a tendency to reinforce itself in whatever direction it begins. First you begin by assuming that ambiguous fire evidence is actually evidence of arson, because it is your job to find arson. Then you interview witnesses by asking questions that make it obvious that you suspect someone. Then, after getting the kind of witness statements that you elicited, you ignore problems with your evidence, and try to minimize the importance of exculpatory evidence. This is generally more of a subconscious process. It does not require you to be out to get the defendant. It's a symptom of the system. And of course there are the prejudicial effects of racial and socioeconomic profiling.

Prosecutors are supposed to be engaged in a objective search for truth, wherever that leads them. In practice, they are in the business of obtaining convictions. And while they want to give the defendant enough of a chance to make sure they are not reprimanded by an appeals court, they generally believe that if they can get a conviction, then justice is served. There does not seem to be much concern for a determination of factual innocence or guilt on the part of the prosecutor.

Prosecutors are often politically motivated, as well. Successful prosecutors are often looking for judgeships or thinking about running for elective office. Prosecutors who obtain convictions, especially high-profile ones, are perceived by the public to be successful; since the public never really knows the details of the cases, they just assume that anyone who is convicted or pleads guilty is factually guilty. Prosecutors have nothing to lose and everything to gain politically by trying to convict as many people as they can.

And of course the racial and socioeconomic discrimination that is found in the investigation process is far worse in the prosecutorial realm, where prosecutorial discretion is rampant, and which results in people who are least able to defend themselves being the most likely to face capital charges.

Expert Testimony:
The experts in this case were typical of many expert witnesses. They were poorly trained. They had biases. And yet they considered themselves to be infallible.

Here is an example from the New Yorker article:

..several family members, including Stacy, testified during the penalty phase, asking the jury to spare Willingham’s life. When Stacy was on the stand, Jackson grilled her about the “significance” of Willingham’s “very large tattoo of a skull, encircled by some kind of a serpent.”
“It’s just a tattoo,” Stacy responded.
“He just likes skulls and snakes. Is that what you’re saying?”
“No. He just had—he got a tattoo on him.”
The prosecution cited such evidence in asserting that Willingham fit the profile of a sociopath, and brought forth two medical experts to confirm the theory. Neither had met Willingham. One of them was Tim Gregory, a psychologist with a master’s degree in marriage and family issues, who had previously gone goose hunting with Jackson, (John Jackson, the prosecutor!) and had not published any research in the field of sociopathic behavior. His practice was devoted to family counselling.

At one point, Jackson showed Gregory Exhibit No. 60—a photograph of an Iron Maiden poster that had hung in Willingham’s house—and asked the psychologist to interpret it. “This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.” Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting—it reminds me of something like Hell. And there’s a picture—a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel. . . . I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

Prosecutors are allowed wide latitude with these type of experts, and the courts generally defer to them. Juries are instructed that they may rely upon their testimony, and to a jury, these witnesses often seem very competent and confident. If an expert says it's arson, well, it must be arson. And if a defendant or his less-than-stellar attorney is unable to afford an expert who can contradict, or even be aware that someone could contradict them, then whatever the expert says is truth. In this case, the defendant himself likely believed that it was arson; he just knew he didn't commit it. Incidentally, expert witnesses are also called professional witnesses, which seems for more appropriate, as they are compensated for their testimony (somehow, this is not considered a bribe) and they know that continued employment in other cases rests on their willingness to reach the conclusion the DA wants.

Consider that in many of the cases where innocent people are suspected to have been executed, death advocates maintain that the expert testimony was overwhelming, as though that means anything at all.

The other medical expert was James P. Grigson, a forensic psychiatrist. He testified so often for the prosecution in capital-punishment cases that he had become known as Dr. Death. (A Texas appellate judge once wrote that when Grigson appeared on the stand the defendant might as well “commence writing out his last will and testament.”) Grigson suggested that Willingham was an “extremely severe sociopath,” and that “no pill” or treatment could help him. Grigson had previously used nearly the same words in helping to secure a death sentence against Randall Dale Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a police officer, in 1977. After Adams, who had no prior criminal record, spent a dozen years on death row—and once came within seventy-two hours of being executed—new evidence emerged that absolved him, and he was released. In 1995, three years after Willingham’s trial, Grigson was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for violating ethics. The association stated that Grigson had repeatedly arrived at a “psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question, and for indicating, while testifying in court as an expert witness, that he could predict with 100-per-cent certainty that the individuals would engage in future violent acts.”

These are the people we rely on to establish guilt before we kill someone.

Defense Attorney:
There is a perception in the US that defendants in death penalty cases are given the the best representation: that these cases are so rare, and so high-profile, and so important to get right, that the defendants are given some hot-shot attorney and a team of experts right out of a Grisham novel. Yet look at the attorneys in this cases. They were clearly incompetent. They had no knowledge of arson cases, or of death penalty cases, nor even of which questions they should ask. His attorney both admitted that they considered him guilty; because the state assigned him these two morons, Willingham had no choice but to take them, as he could not afford to hire an attorney of his choice, who might actually believe that he was innocent, and be prepared to fight for his life!

Here is David Martin, Willingham's attorney and a former state trooper:

All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids’ beds.” It was, he said, “a classic arson case”: there were “puddle patterns all over the place—no disputing those.

How could we ever expect an attorney with this mindset to vigorously defend his client? He was probably happy to find the case so cut and dried; death penalty cases are a lot of work, and it's far easier to just believe your client is guilty, and try to talk him into accepting a plea. So much for the notion that people on death row all got a chance to make their case.

We also tend to believe that because there is a relatively lengthy appeals process for death row inmates, the appeals courts will ensure that all of the above problems are taken care of. But this is wrong.

Appeals courts rarely consider new evidence, and even more rarely will they review the actual evidence in a trial in an attempt to ascertain the factual guilt or innocence of an appellant. Instead, they simply review the trial to ensure that there were no procedural errors, and if there were not, the appeal is denied. Here is Justice Antonin Scalia in a recent dissent:

This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.

In other words, Scalia has no problem with executing innocent people, as long as they had a fair trial. And the sad fact is that the Willingham's trial would be considered fair. The rules and procedures were followed; there is no doubt about this. This is the system's definition of justice-whether procedure was followed. Whether the truth is revealed is of a lower priority.

The clemency board, which is supposed to review these cases as the last and final measure, simply rubber-stamped the courts decisions, and obviously operated under the assumption that Willingham was guilty. They ignored the report that would have exonerated him, because they had already made up their minds.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”

And now it has happened. We've executed 1,100 people since the death penalty was reinstated. We have 3,300 people on death row today. Is there any possibility that in all 4,400 of these cases, the truth has been determined with absolute certainty? The very idea is ludicrous. No sane person could make this argument with a straight face. The only thing that is surprising is that it has taken this long to find the proof.

But let's be honest-a broken criminal just system cannot be reformed by simply ending executions. This is of little comfort to those who are sentenced to life in prison with the possiblity of parole, based on trials which are often even more unjust. Ironically, the only thing that is keeping any attention on this joke of a system is the fact that we are using it to kill people; take that away, and there will be a lot less attention on the fact that innocent people are people sent to prison for the rest of their lives all the time.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in 2006, voted with a majority to uphold the death penalty in a Kansas case. In his opinion, Scalia declared that, in the modern judicial system, there has not been “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

Well, it's time to start shouting from the rooftops. Where is Mr. Scalia now?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why Fee For Service Doesn't Work

Here's a write-up of a study that shows that exercise is better than surgery for many patients. It highlights one the big problems with our current health care system, which is that the incentives are designed to promote surgeries, expensive tests, and prescription drugs, because doctors and hospitals make money off these procedures.

How much money do we spend annually on angioplasty? According to the American Heart Association, 1,314,000 of them were performed in 2006. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of these procedures was $10,107 in 2004 dollars, a number that includes figures for Canada, which are quite lower than those of the United States. This means that the cost per treatment for the US is actually higher. Nonetheless, using these numbers we get an average expenditure, in the United States alone, of around $13.3 billion.

How much of this money is wasted? How many of these surgeries are unnecessary? Apparently, judging from the Barcelona study, quite a few. And keep in mind that this is but one procedure, and there are many more procedures for which there are dubious benefits. There all also procedures which may or may not be beneficial, depending on the situation, but which are performed anyway, because the incentive is for doctors to do them. Often the doctors assume that there is no cost to the patient (and there often is no direct cost), and they know that procedures will get them paid, whereas giving good medical advice will not.

As long as fee-for-service is a feature of our health care system, we will continue to see rising costs, and the neglect of basic preventative measures like exercise and good diet.

We need a public option to keep insurance companies from ripping us all off. We need universal coverage, so that we can join the rest of the civilized world. But we also need to change the structure of the whole system, so that we focus on making patients healthy, and not just cutting them open for money.

Friday, September 4, 2009

More Drug War Deaths

Here are two connected stories. These stories illustrate one of the ways in which our national drug policy is literally killing people. The first is from

A medical examiner says a 19-year-old Boulder man died from lethal levels of morphine after drinking "opium tea" brewed with poppy pods.
Boulder County Coroner Tom Faure (fohr) released his findings Monday in the July 21 death of Jeffrey Joseph Bohan. Faure ruled the death accidental.

Witnesses told police that Bohan and an older brother drank the tea early that morning, then fell asleep at about 4 a.m. after playing video games. Police say that when the older brother woke up a few hours later, the younger man wasn't breathing.

It's the second death blamed on poppy pod tea. Police say 20-year-old University of Colorado student Alex McGuiggan was found dead in February after drinking at least two cups.

The second is from an AP story:

Nearly a third of all cocaine seized in the United States is laced with a dangerous veterinary medicine — a livestock de-worming drug that might enhance cocaine's effects but has been blamed in at least three deaths and scores of serious illnesses.
The medication called levamisole has killed at least three people in the U.S. and Canada and sickened more than 100 others. It can be used in humans to treat colorectal cancer, but it severely weakens the body's immune system, leaving patients vulnerable to fatal infections.

Why are people dying from things like this? Because the United States refuses to regulate these drugs and to ensure that they are safe. This is just the tip of the iceberg, by the way. Most overdoses occur not just because the victim uses too much of a particular substance but because they have no way of knowing how strong or pure the substance is. That's because our government, instead of trying to make these drugs more safe, has decided to criminalize them and then pretend that people won't use them. So know, instead of a reputable pharmaceutical company (please don't laugh) producing cocaine,for example, and then having the FDA test it and ensure its purity is standardized, you have a criminal making it, and cutting corners by cutting it with veterinary medicine.

You could say those people should just obey the law and not do drugs. But we've tried this approach for the last 40 years. It doesn't work. People are still using drugs. They want to use drugs. They want to use drugs so badly, they'll break the law to use drugs laced with poison, or brew opium tea from poppy seeds. This is dangerous. This is what you get when you criminalize what should be at most a treatment issue, and often, as is the case with marijuana, no issue at all.

You might also say that if drugs weren't illegal, far more people would use them, and that this added risk would outweigh the problems with black market drugs. But the experiments in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Netherlands would prove you wrong, as drug use has remained steady or dropped, while overdoses have decreased in those countries.

And of course you have to consider the other costs of criminalization. The War on Drugs costs billions of dollars every year (money that could be spent on treatment or drug education), supports vast criminal networks, has given us the world's highest incarceration rate, has ruined the lives of millions of otherwise good citizens (while at the same time introducing them to the criminal world), has destroyed respect for the law, has discriminated against the minorities and the poor, and in the end, has accomplished absolutely nothing.

This cannot continue. Momentum for sane drug policy is growing, and I predict that it will reach a critical mass in the next few years, if not before. Do not think that you are the only one who agrees with me, and don't be afraid to talk to your friends and neighbors about this issue.

This is not some trivial issue about letting hippies get high. Our drug policy is highly destructive, and fixing that policy would make this country a much, much better place. This issue affects you whether you like drugs or not. And now is the time to speak up. Be on the right side of history.