Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is there anything that the pharmaceutical giants WON'T do to sell their product?

I feel very disturbed right now.

We've all heard all those drug ads on television:

Why continue to suffer with painful and debilitating hemorrhoids? Live a hemorrhoid-free life with new Putridex, from Glutton Pharmaceuticals.

Be advised that not everyone should take Putridex. Women who are pregnant or nursing or may become pregnant should not take Putridex. Neither should anyone under 30 or older than 35. Side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach, vomiting, dizziness, dandruff, rabies, scabies, bari-bari, scurvy, hair loss, gangrene, gout, hiccups, sexual dysfunction, loss of appetite, gallstones, kidneystones, blindness, insanity and an uncontrollable desire to play golf with Jack Abramoff. So next time you visit your doctor be sure to ask about Putridex. Ask for it by name.

You know the gig. But if you are reading this you are also probably an adult. You know that what is advertised on television should always be taken with a grain of salt. You know that all these medical advertisements are out there not necessarily to educate you, but because pharmaceutical companies have figured out that one way to get customers to buy their products is through direct marketing in which the customer, based mainly on the information in the ad, decides on their own course of treatment and gets their physician to write a prescription for that particular product instead of a competing or generic drug that may do the same thing.

But this is what bothered me-- my 12 year old came to me a few minutes ago, scared to death of getting meningitis, having just heard it will kill rapidly and asking if she could be vaccinated with a product called menactra (I had to look it up.) And do you know where she saw the commercial? ON NICKELODEON! She and her sister it turns out were watching Spongebob Squarepants and that was the commercial that came up.

Now, I have no problem with protecting my kids against deadly diseases (meningitis certainly included.) Two years ago I made a point of going to their doctor and insisting that both of my daughters get the HPV vaccinations that may someday prevent them from getting cervical cancer.

However I have a real problem with a pharmaceutical company (in this case an outfit called Sanofi Pasteur) pushing drugs-- any kind of drugs on kids, and in particular by scaring them about getting a deadly disease. While I don't discount the information in the ad or the need to protect kids (and I certainly intend to have them vaccinated against meningitis sometime before they go to college) I really feel that scaring kids into asking their parents for a shot is unethical.

Of course lots of companies advertise their wares to children. I've become used to telling my kids 'no' by now when they come and ask me for New Nuclear Barbie (decontamination suit that glows in the dark). That's to be expected, I suppose. But pushing vaccines and drugs is over the line, and I hope I'm not the only one who thinks that way. I might add as a parent this gives me a dilemma. Do I tell my daughter she can't have the vaccine (meaning that she now thinks I'm willing to risk her death to save a few bucks) or do I get it (meaning they've now succeeded in writing my household budget for me by manipulating my twelve year old.)

I intend to contact NICKELODEON once their offices open tomorrow and let them know how I feel. If they are going to show kids programming they should categorically reject any ads from pharmaceutical companies (I'm sure there is precedent for this-- can you imagine for example watching Spongebob and seeing an ad for, say, Budweiser?)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Free speech is too important to restrict

I hate having to defend people who I consider toads, but right now that's just what I have to do.

Last week a British court gave a victory to Max Mosely, a British politician who claimed that he had been smeared by tabloids after they published intimate details of an orgy at his home in Chelsea, which according to the tabloids involved nazi role-play (for the record, Mosely admits to the orgy but denies the nazi role-play.) From this case we've learned that there is now a whole new subcategory of S & M in which one group of people dresses up in World War II vintage Nazi uniforms and then beat and humiliate their 'captives.' Well, just what I didn't need to know. I'd find it offensive that anyone could turn the systematic slaughter of entire populations into a sexual fantasy if it wasn't so utterly stupid. Best left behind closed doors.

The court ruled that Mosely was entitled to his privacy and that it was a violation of that right for the newspaper to publish details of his sex life.

And that ruling is chilling to me.

Now, I'm a strong advocate of the right to privacy from laws, government intrusions and the like. I've always been an advocate for the right of consenting adults to whatever the heck they want in the privacy of their own home (even if it is to dress up as Nazis and whip each other.) It is also true that tabloids are the worst kind of offenders of personal privacy (if you don't believe that then ask anyone who knows Brittney Spears, Angelina Jolie or Lindsay Lohan.) In celebrity-studded Southern California tabloid reporters eager for a picture have caused several minor traffic accidents and prevented people from getting into restaurants by packing around the front door with cameras clicking. The potential for a major, even fatal accident (and we still don't know how much of a role the paparazzi played in the death of Princess Diana a decade ago), or crowds of paparazzi preventing people from getting out of a restaurant in case of a fire, is present and sooner or later the law of averages says that something like that will happen. And that's just the American tabloids, which are by any account far tamer than their British counterparts (one of the benefits of not having a monarchy, I suppose.)

Personally, I make it a point never to purchase a tabloid and I encourage my kids to not buy them. And I take anything I hear from them with a grain of salt unless it is confirmed by a news source I trust.

Nevertheless, the Mosely verdict is the wrong one. Any kind of censorship (and restrictions on what tabloids can report is censorship) is a step towards an authoritarian state like we all fear. Just last week, the National Enquirer reported that John Edwards had been to a hotel in the middle of the night last week to see a former campaign worker who he has been accused of impregnating (Edwards, the campaign worker, and another campaign worker who claims he is really the father all deny it.) Now, I was skeptical the first time I heard that story a couple of months ago (especially since it also originated in the Enquirer). For one thing Edwards was thoroughly vetted by the Jesse Helms organization (nobody dug dirt better) when he ran for the Senate against a Helms protege in 1998 and again four years ago by the Republican attack machine when he was on the ticket with John Kerry. For him to suddenly do something so stupid this year would seem almost unbelievable, short of his having snuck off to a surgeon's office and having had a secret frontal lobotomy first. But in fact now I am not so sure. It seems to me that if a politician were accused of an affair, especially falsely accused, rule number one would be to avoid ever being around the woman he was accused of having it with again (and even more so to avoid being around her in a place like a hotel at 2 A.M.)

Then again this weekend there was a minor row around Barack Obama's trip to Israel. Like many visitors to come and pray at the Western Wall (Judaism's most holy site) Obama apparently wrote a private prayer on a piece of paper and placed it into the wall. Someone apparently retrieved that particular piece of paper and gave it to Maariv, an Israeli newspaper which published the prayer. I know that if I wrote a private prayer and put it in a holy place I'd expect it to remain between me and God and some Israelis are shocked that the newspaper would carry out such a breach of privacy (though apparently no Israeli laws were broken.)

Nevertheless the National Enquirer and Maariv should be allowed to publish what they find out just as much as any other journalistic enterprise (including the British tabloids.) Leaving aside the obvious facts that this information could just as easily be published, even if anonymously, on the internet or that many more people buy news for the salacious details than for any real news (one reason why traditional newspapers are declining in sales while sales of tabloids never seem to be hurt) they should still have the right to publish what they do and by implication go where they do to get the news. There are some things much more threatening than nosy reporters or photographers intruding on people's most private moments (as irksome as that can be) and one of those is the prospect of the law telling any publication that they can't publish something. Because if they can tell you that you can't publish details of Max Mosely's or John Edwards' sex life, then they can tell you what else you can't publish, and then what else until eventually it becomes instead a list of what you can publish (which could still be shrunken.) That is the policy that the media operates under in countries like China, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

There is of course another threat. During the Hoover era at the FBI (as I once posted), J. Edgar Hoover and others were expert at collecting dirt on everyone they could. By the time he died he had files on as many as fifty million Americans from all walks of life (and certainly on every American who might ever be in a position of power.) Often the government would spill details of someone's personal life in an effort to discredit them (This happened to everyone from Dr. King to people who opposed the Vietnam war to members of Congress who suggested budget cuts to programs that Hoover supported.) Of course laws have since been passed limiting the ability of the Federal Government, even if they know something about somebody, to use it against political opponents (though that hasn't stopped them from trying on occasion.) Is there anything to prevent a future, more sophisticated version of Hoover, from using tabloids to further his own private agenda?

Well, no there is not. And leaks happen today, often in the furtherance of someone or some group's agenda. And they don't even have to go to tabloids to leak, unless the story is so sewer-worthy that the official Washington media won't touch it. But that is the price we pay for a free press. The answer is not to muzzle the press, but to aggressively investigate and prosecute anyone who violates the law in terms of leaking privileged information or violates existing privacy laws in getting that information (for example I would have agreed with Mosely if he'd based his suit on his contention that the tabloid press acted as 'peeping toms' rather than adding that comment as an afterthought and challenging their right to publish the story at all.) Similarly, the city of Malibu, California (ground zero for the paparazzi) is now looking at ways they can fine reporters who drive dangerously or otherwise cause disturbances including blocking entrances to businesses. There is nothing wrong with that-- require that they maintain order while going about their chosen line of work.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mr. Negative

Pay attention to the candidates for a week. One of them is laying out ideas and plans for the future, talking about what needs to be done both in America and around the world and what he will do.

The other candidate is mainly talking about his opponent.

Guess which is which?

John McCain actually caught a break this week when the New York Times refused to publish his letter to them after they had published Senator Obama's letter. The reason was because McCain's letter was not, unlike Obama's, a thoughtful treatise on how to improve things, but rather was just another attack. And if it had been published it would have gone together with the rest of the steady stream of attacks that Senator McCain has been leveling (instead of actually plugging himself) over the past week or so. In fact the refusal by the NYT became a net plus for McCain. There is nothing that seems to rally the nutbag right behind a candidate faster than being attacked or otherwise dumped on by the New York Times. But had the letter been published it would have made it clear that McCain's main tactic in the election is to impugn Senator Obama, with little else he can say.

Now, granted this is a campaign and attacking your opponent when you are behind is standard strategy and is as old as politics itself. And while Senator Obama has refrained from more than a passing mention of Senator McCain most of the time, he certainly has surrogates (as does McCain) out there doing the job for him. The difference is that it is ununsual for the candidate himself to get out in front on this issue. That may be why McCain is toying with the idea of choosing his running mate early. But my guess is that he won't but will instead just continue launching the spitwads himself.

It also says volumes about McCain's lack of anything meaningful to say. His plans for the economy and continuing to stay in Iraq are virtually the same as George Bush's, a President who if he were running today would lose in a landslide. He's praised Bush's Supreme Court appointments and said he would appoint the same kind of judges. I wrote a post three months ago pointing out that McCain's website never even mentions the words "social security" one time. I went back there the other day and it still doesn't. The man is devoid of new ideas, other than to continue the present path of the Bush administration on virtually everything. So I understand why he doesn't want to talk about any of that, so what's left is to attack Obama.

Is Obama vulnerable to attack? Sure, all candidates are. But at least he has some new ideas and some new plans for doing something in the next decade that is different from what we've done in this one.

In the meantime though I don't think these attacks will succeed. McCain has been called a 'grumpy old man,' and he's doing everything to live up to that rap. Maybe after the election Bob Dole (another guy famous for going on the attack himself) will let him co-star in another of those Viagra commercials.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bush administration reversing itself on all kinds of issues

If nothing else, you know we are winning the battle of ideas when even the Bush administration is reversing itself at a dizzying pace.

Not long ago the administration acknowleged the reality of global warming and announced that it would not block work towards a new global warming treaty (though both Senators Obama and McCain are firmly committed to one anyway so it really didn't matter what the Bush administration did.)

Then as I blogged about last week, they reversed what had been a policy set in stone against talking to Iran. This was done without preconditions (though in a meeting involving multiple nations) and represents a complete about face from a President who just a month ago made a speech in Israel in which he suggested that anyone who wanted to talk to Iran was guilty of pursuing a policy of "appeasement." It also shows that despite the rhetoric criticizing Senator Obama's proposal that we should actually negotiate with our enemies rather than just bark at them, the proposal is both sound and long overdue.

That however pales into insignificance compared to the next flip-flop. The entire debate between the White House and Congress over the past two years has been about troop withdrawals. The White House vetoed multiple Iraq funding bills (and had the vetoes upheld by their congressional allies) all over the singular issue of a withdrawal timetable. Even with the reduction of violence in Iraq since we began paying Sunni militiamen to fight al-Qaeda instead of us and simultaneously implemented "the surge"*, the President has refused to consider troop reductions on a set schedule. But he had little choice, after Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki for all intensive purposes endorsed Barack Obama's proposal (which reflects the collective view of the Democratic Congress) that the American troops can and should be withdrawn on a schedule. The timing of this proposal, on the eve of Senator Obama's trip to Iraq could not be more embarrassing for the Bush administration which was already stunned when the Iraqi government refused to accept their demands and ended negotiations on a 'status of forces' agreement which would have kept U.S. forces in Iraq permanently and beyond the reach of the Iraqi legal system. While Obama himself has allowed that the pace could be slightly adjusted to account for events on the ground, the new Iraqi position clearly represents a meeting of minds, and it is one in which Bush and John McCain are the odd men out. So no wonder the Bush administration has reversed their position on a timetable. It is now a foregone conclusion that we won't have a permanent occupation force in the up to sixty bases that were once envisioned, and all Bush is doing is putting the best face he can on what is clearly a defeat for his policy. And after five years of war, a trillion dollars and thousands of dead American soldiers it will be tough once we do leave for anyone to make the case that invading Iraq was anything other than a mistake.

So then today we see the President apparently reversing himself on Habeus Corpus. (Hat tip to lscottsman at Coldhearted Truth, linked to.) He now says he wants prisoners to be charged and given a trial or released if they are not charged.

Hmmmm.... Not that I'm complaining about the changes (it's nice to know that for at least the last half a year of the Bush administration we will have some sanity) but I'm trying to think--- what exactly is it that George W. Bush stands for, anyway?

*-- any discussion of the 'surge' does have to (in order for me to be academically honest) include the admission that yes, I once predicted it would fail. I'll save you the trouble and link to the post where I made that prediction right here. But yes, I'm actually happy to say that I was wrong in my prediction that the surge would not bring about a reduction in violence-- and one that has led to the present situation in which the Iraqi government refused to sign the agreement the Bush administration wanted and is instead telling us in effect to start packing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bush administration does something right-- reverses itself on Iran talks

Remember when Barack Obama said that he was willing to meet unconditionally with foreign leaders we don't get along with, including Iran? In fact, even his pledge to negotiate with them at any level was lambasted. He was called an appeaser and worse, and the right has been howling ever since then about it. Of course the policy of the Bush administration has been never to negotiate with governments it considers part of the 'axis of evil' or otherwise involved in 'sponsoring terrorism.' Even John McCain got into the act, refusing to meet with Palestinians during his last trip to the middle east (incidentally, Barack Obama has accepted an invitation to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as Israeli President Ohlmert when he goes to the middle east next month.)

Of course earlier this year we saw the Bush administration reverse themselves and negotiate directly with the North Koreans. But the biggest and most obvious foreign bogeyman-- Iran-- they have always publically refused to negotiate with.

So it was suprising today to see the Bush administration do a 180 degree reversal today and announce that Undersecretary of State William Burns will meet with Iranian diplomat Saeed Jalili this week during negotiations between Iran and diplomats from the European Union.

This is huge, and it is long overdue. It is not of course the kind of Presidential level talk that Obama has been criticized for saying he would pursue, and the scope of the discussion-- Iran's nuclear program-- is limited, but it nevertheless marks the first time in several years of saber rattling that the U.S. and Iran have had any kind of direct talks.

It is overdue because whether we like it or not, Iran represents a significant player in a part of the world that is both vital to the U.S. and where we have now gotten a significant portion of our military bogged down in (how much of our problems in Iraq the past five years have been due to Iran is debatable, but it is foolish to think that there is no connection.) Iran has much more influence over the Maliki government than we do (starting with the fact that much of the Iraqi military is composed of former members of the Iranian backed Badr brigade.) Iran also has a lot of influence over Hezbollah and other groups that whether we like it or not have significant power bases and ability to cause trouble around the middle east. And then there is that nuclear program and the obvious likelihood of a confrontation sooner or later between Iran and Israel. In other words, Iran is just too important to ignore. We may not like them, but then during the Cold War we didn't like the Soviet Union either. But like them or not, we had to deal with them.

The Bush administration is also clearly coming to the realization that in its waning days, with the costly mistake of Iraq only now settling down after five years of brutal war while the country we took our eye off of to go into Iraq, Afghanistan, is now heating up, any plans that they had to invade and occupy Iran (and we know that it was on their long term agenda) will have to be thrown away. Right now they have neither the military force needed nor the support of the American people for adding a long term military war and occupation of Iran to what is currently going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their about face and willingness to negotiate is ample proof that they realize this.

It also vindicates Obama's position on negotiations with foreign adversaries, and leaves conservatives (especially the variety of neocon who can think of no other way to engage a country like Iran than militarily) blustering and red in the face. I'm not saying that the deployment of military force is never required (I've always supported the Afghan war and believe that we must leave Iraq as soon as possible so that we can do what we should have done half a decade ago and finish the job there) but clearly diplomacy has its place. Even the Bush administration, which early on used terms like 'with us or against us' and 'coalition of the willing' to excuse its unwillingness to rely on diplomacy, has realized that the world is not always such a simple and easily managed place.

I know, I know. Someone will undoubtedly point out that 1) this isn't a Presidential level meeting, and 2) that Ahmadinejad is still a nut who makes all kinds of outrageous rhetoric. My answers are 1) this kind of reversal by the Bush administation is nonetheless hugely significant and could well pave the way for a Presidential level meeting eventually-- by whoever is President; and 2) Ahmadinejad is a not particularly popular politician who makes outrageous statements largely for domestic consumption. But he will be gone next Iranian election (which I believe is next year) and replaced as the 'face of Iran' by another politician. The guys who call the real shots in Iran-- a council of mullahs led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-- are in effect being engaged at just as high a level by diplomatic talks as they would by Presidential talks.

Besides, how is Ahmadinejad's threat to destroy Israel any more outrageous than Bush's declaration of the 'axis of evil' followed by his actual attack on one member of that group-- Iraq? As a North Korean diplomat candidly said a year after that speech, "Your President called us a member of the axis of evil....of course we have a nuclear program" Rhetoric like that often spurs countries to take more, not less action (and the threat from America may be part of Iran's nuclear motivation). So maybe it is time for both sides to tone down the rhetoric and shake hands. This meeting is long, long overdue.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

McCain rape joke

One of my favorite Arizona bloggers, Tedski, did a post on the worst side of John McCain's sense of sick 'humor' in which he dug up this image of a Tucson newspaper article from 1986 in which John McCain is quoted as telling the following joke:

Did you hear the one about the woman who is attacked on the street by a gorilla, beaten senseless, raped repeatedly and left to die? When she finally regains consciousness and tries to speak, her doctor leans over to hear her sigh contently and to feebly ask, ‘Where is that marvelous ape?’

But, hey this is a guy who publically called his own wife the c-word.


Incidentally, Tedski has been selected as the state blogger representing Arizona at the Democratic convention. I put in for it, but I don't mind saying that the credentials committee made an excellent choice.

It's good to see Hillary keeping her word to stand behind Obama

I think that Hillary Clinton is a better candidate when she's stumping for someone else.

And it's good to see that she's keeping her word and pushing Obama as she travels about.

She made a pretty good speech in fact to the convention of the American Federation of Teachers (a group which I used to be a member of when I worked at an institution where we organized a union under AFT auspices.)

Obama was also in Chicago on Saturday, and addressed the conference by satellite today. But Clinton, who received the AFT's backing during the primary, appeared in Obama's hometown yesterday to speak highly of her former rival before an audience of her supporters.

"I can't wait to see Barack raise his hand, take that oath of office and get to work," she told several thousand educators at the conference.

And she jabbed at the Republicans, using a line that drew such applause when Clinton used it earlier this week in New York that Obama borrowed it when he spoke at an event without Clinton on Thursday in Virginia....

"A vice-president who shoots somebody in the face, you couldn't make that up," Clinton said to laughter.

She added, "the Republicans should hold a press conference and apologize to the country and say they're just not going to run anyone for president."

I admit that I was a bit concerned about whether Hillary's promise to 'work her heart out for [Obama]' if he won the nomination might be just words. Obviously during the obligatory joint appearances she praised him, but the real test is what she would say when she goes on the road alone and doing her normal routine. And now we can see that she is doing what she can to help him. This will certainly help get her back into the good graces of a lot on the left who had abandoned her over Iraq and other issues before.

And I loved that line about Cheney. I agree, that if the Republicans can't come up with anybody better than Dick Cheney for number two, then it would be better to leave that line on the ballot blank.

Of course Cheney has served his role well. Over the past eight years, he's been the best argument Bush had against any serious attempt at impeachment.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And this is an accomplishment he's PROUD of?

President Bush went to his last G-8 summit this week, and spent the week with other leaders of developed countries discussing a variety of topics, not the least of which was curbing the emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Of course President Bush has always been the one sticking his foot in the way of any real attempt to do anything about pollution. So when it was over, as his successor will go to the next G-8 summit, he decided to say goodbye to his old (and some new) partners.

"Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter," said the President with a broad grin on his face.

And just to show what a huge accomplishment he thought that was he gave it some extra emphasis.

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

Some joke, huh? And just a day after the White House had to issue an official apology to Italy after President Bush was given travel notes describing Italy as a 'country known for corruption and vice.'

Of course this isn't the first time that Bush has embarrassed America at the G-8 summit. Remember two years ago when he goosed Angela Merkel in an episode that was so bizarre that I still have trouble comprehending it (though it's been hard to not notice that since then Merkel, who was elected as a Bush ally, has been noticeably cool toward Bush and kept her distance from him.)

I've watched lots of Presidents, including some conservative Presidents who I disagreed with, like Nixon, Reagan and Bush's father. But I've never seen a President who has so consistently been a poor representative of our country on international trips (and that's even counting the time when Jimmy Carter vomited in the lap of the prime minister of Japan after eating sushi.) Bush's behavior is strange, bizarre and disjointed. The only thing I wonder about is whether he behaves that way all the time, just that on these international trips it's harder for his handlers to keep it under wraps.

Monday, July 07, 2008

FEMA-- Brownie's gone and the President probably still thinks they're doing a Heckuva job.

How do you figure out a way to hide millions in relief supplies from the people who need it, and then give it away to other state agencies instead?

Easy-- you create an obscure office that no one knows about, send them there and then declare that since no one applied for them they are actually not needed.

Then if you have a state government run by good ol' boys (somebody must have tipped them off) they can jump in and claim the loot to plug budget holes in their own agencies.

That's what the Bush administration did with millions of dollars in supplies that never made it to Katrina victims, many of whom are still waiting (I guess it would be a good opportunity to mention that today is July 7, 2008 which makes it officially 1,043 days they have been waiting.)

BILOXI, Mississippi (CNN) -- Prisons in Mississippi got coffee makers, pillowcases and dinnerware -- all intended for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The state's Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks took more coffee makers, cleaning supplies and other items.

Plastic containers ended up with the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

Colleges, volunteer fire departments and other agencies received even more.

But the Mississippi hurricane victims who originally were intended to receive the supplies got nothing, a CNN investigation has found...

Last month, CNN revealed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had stored $85 million worth of household items in warehouses for two years. Instead of giving the supplies to victims of the 2005 hurricane, FEMA declared them surplus and gave them all away to federal agencies and 16 states in February.

The state of Louisiana -- the most hard-hit by the storm -- had not asked for any of the supplies, prompting outrage in the community after the original CNN report.

CNN's investigation showed that Mississippi was one of the 16 states that took the FEMA supplies, but it did not distribute them to Katrina victims.

Jim Marler, director of Mississippi's surplus agency, failed to return repeated phone calls over several months to explain what happened.

Agency spokeswoman Kym Wiggins said, "There may be a need, but we were not notified that there was a great need for this particular property."

That doesn't sit well with most aid groups in Mississippi. "You would have to be living under a rock not to know there is still a need," said Cass Woods, the project coordinator of Coastal Women for Change.

Wiggins said that nonprofit organizations must meet federal guidelines and register with the state and that no such groups helping the needy or homeless were registered with Mississippi's surplus agency.

"There is no specific designation outside of a disaster period that says we have to have sustained properties going to the disaster area," Wiggins said.

CNN interviewed the leaders of eight nonprofits helping Katrina victims at a Biloxi, Mississippi, church used as a staging area for community groups. All said they had no idea these items were available, and most had no idea the surplus agency existed.

Yeah. There are thousands of people who are still waiting for help, and they haven't gotten it.

Ultimately the fact that the state of Mississippi, where the story is focused knew about the goods but chose to give it to other state agencies instead of to the victims it was intended for is something which both the Bush administration and Governor Haley Barbour's office is going to have to answer for. In Louisiana, neither former Governor Kathleen Blanco nor current Governor Bobby Jindahl apparently even bothered to apply for the aid at all.

Like I said above, it is 1,043 days and counting that some people are waiting for assistance.

And Brownie's long gone, so it must be someone else who's doing a Heckuva job.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Obama's 'flip-flops' are greatly exaggerated.

A lot has been made about Barack Obama's supposed 'flip-flops.' First there was the campaign finance issue, when he reversed a pledge to accept public financing because he can raise a lot more on the internet. Then on each of the Supreme Court rulings last week he came down on what could be considered the conservative side (disagreeing with the ruling outlawing executing child rapists and agreeing with the ruling that the District of Columbia can't ban all handguns.) Then he said he will vote for the latest incarnation of the FISA bill despite it giving telecom companies immunity, and today while campaigning in North Dakota he made a statement that he would withdraw troops from Iraq on a pace subject to the safety and security of the troops and the need to maintain stability.

There is a lot to say here. First, most of the supposed 'flip-flops' are greatly exagerrated when put in the context of what he has said in the past. And where they aren't, so what? No one is suggesting that Barack Obama isn't a politician. Would you rather have John McCain, who if elected pledges to continue virtually all of the Bush administration's policies? What makes Barack Obama special is his ability to inspire millions of people. That is not contradictory to also being a politician. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were politicians to the core, but that was not contradictory to their also being inspirational leaders.

The most clear flip-flop is on the campaign finance issue, so let's start with it. A long time ago, during the primary season, Barack Obama did pledge to take public financing in the general if his Republican opponent did likewise. That is true. But he did reverse himself. However, let's be clear here-- there is little doubt that he can raise as much as three or four times as much on the internet as the $84 million he would otherwise get in general election financing. For that matter, do you honestly believe that if John McCain had a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars he wouldn't take it? That is the reason why Mitt Romney is still on McCain's list as a veep candidate. So for Obama to limit himself to a third of the resources he would otherwise have would be stupid. He proved he isn't stupid. Next issue?

The FISA bill. It gives most of us on the left heartburn that Obama will vote for it. The bill puts into law immunity for telecom companies that broke the law (at the request of the Bush administration) when they violated your privacy and gave access to government snoops to your telephone calls without a warrant (you don't actually know for sure than nobody did listen to your calls, now do you?) It's true that he had pledged to vote against this earlier. He is saying that the new bill is an improvement, which is true, but the big issue, the immunity for the telecom companies is still in there. So while he can use the cover provided by the changes in the bill to say he didn't flip-flop, yeah he did. However this is hardly a reason to vote for John McCain. You know darn well he will vote for the FISA bill enthusiastically (assuming he bothers to show up at all-- his absentee rate is worse than Obama's in the U.S. Senate this year, negating an issue Republicans once thought they could use.)

Let's discuss the two Supreme Court rulings. I don't consider these to be flip-flops at all. Regarding the first, Obama has said in the past that he supports the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. He never said whether he considered the rape of a child to qualify, until it became a valid question in the wake of last week's SCOTUS ruling. So if it's the first time he's commented on it, where is the flip-flop? I happen to disagree with him (I actually think the Supreme Court ruling is right-- if we have the death penalty at all then it should be used as an 'eye-for-an-eye' punishment, exclusively for murder) but there is no flip-flop in this case.

Then on the gun case, the Supreme Court ruled against the D.C. gun ban. The justices interpreted the Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual right to bear arms, not just a collective right. Obama, who in the past has supported gun control laws, agreed with this interpretation. Again, there is no flip-flop. The court ruled the D.C. ban went too far in banning all guns of a certain type, but that isn't contradictory to jurisdictions regulating them. Senator Obama's past statements and his current support of the D.C. ruling are not contradictory in that regard.

For that matter, I agree with both Supreme Court rulings. This puts me in opposition to Senator Obama on the first, but not the second, and in opposition to some liberals on the second, but not the first. Proving what? Proving that in the Democratic party we can have disagreements on issues and still remain united.

OK, what about today's Iraq statement? It is no secret that Senator Obama has pledged to get us out of Iraq. So today he said,

"I’ve always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed. And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”

Again, where is the flip-flop? Look at this quote from a Democratic debate in 2007:

We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later, but our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month.

Which according to the article led to his taking some heat from some of the other candidates in the debate, particularly John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

That was last September. So what he said today is completely consistent with what he said then. Again, it isn't like he is talking about anything other than withdrawal. He is talking about using information he gathers (i.e. from his upcoming trip to Iraq) to develop a more informed plan for withdrawing. That in itself is a refreshing change from our current executive, who when he began talking about Iraq had his mind already made up what to do and ran an administration that cherry picked intelligence reports to only pick out any which supported their pre-drawn conclusion. I'd much rather have a President who is capable of adjusting the specifics of his policy when and if he receives new information.

Of course then John McCain isn't talking about withdrawing at all, he's talking about staying there for a hundred years. And while we are debating this the Bush administration is feverishly twisting arms in Iraq to try and get them to sign onto a 'treaty' that will involve our building and maintaining as many as sixty military bases in Iraq. What do we need sixty bases there for? Only if we plan on using Iraq as a base from which to exert military control throughout the middle east. Barack Obama opposed George Bush's stupid and criminal war in Iraq from the beginning and he is the only candidate talking about withdrawing from Iraq soon. That's a plain fact. What he said today is in no way contradictory to what he said then.

That said, the attempt by the right-wing media to paint him as a sellout is an attempt to drive a wedge between him and his supporters. And it's met with some success. Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) already announced that while he will endorse and vote for Obama, he has torn up the check he was writing him. And as Moulitsas goes so go many supporters. For Obama to realize his goal of raising $250 million online he needs that support.

To a degree Obama also is creating part of the problem by his attempt to 'seize the center.' That doesn't work. He is blessed with the ability to articulate policy positions. Look at what a couple of good orators who can speak directly to the people (mainly, Socialist Bernie Sanders but also Howard Dean) were able to accomplish in Vermont. It was such a Republican state for generations that it even voted against FDR in 1936. Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts neighbor Michael Dukakis couldn't crack it either. But by the late 1980's then-congressman Sanders had laid out such an articulate vision and in terms that anyone could understand that the whole state moved to the left. And unlike, for example, California, it was not an immigration-driven change. Most Vermonters were born and raised in Vermont. But the majority of them are now among the most liberal people in the country when a generation ago they were among the most conservative. Obama could make the same kind of change for America, and I believe it is a mistake for him not to do so.

In fact, exhibit A is Obama himself. He beat Hillary Clinton largely because she had spent six years in the Senate staking out the center, and a lot of activists (who especially were unhappy with her continuing support for the Iraq war long after it became clear to everyone else that it was an unnecessary mistake) by that time were ready to support anybody else who could beat her.

However, while I may have some concerns about Obama's small steps towards the center, let's be clear here-- they have been greatly exagerrated by those who attempt to paint him as a 'flip-flopper.' Those people have the ultimate goal of electing John McCain. And that would be a horrible mistake and a disaster for the country.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Death while waiting to be seen

It's hard to even know what to say about this story:

NEW YORK (AP) -- City hospital officials said they were shocked by surveillance footage showing a woman falling from her chair, writhing on the floor and dying as workers failed to help for more than an hour.

Esmin Green, 49, had been waiting in the emergency room for nearly 24 hours when she toppled from her seat at 5:32 a.m. June 19, falling face-down on the floor.

She was dead by 6:35, when someone on the medical staff, flagged down by a person in the waiting room, finally approached, nudged Green with her foot and gently prodded her shoulder, as if to wake her...

And this is really galling:

Security guards and a member of the hospital's staff appeared to notice her prone body at least three times but made no visible attempt to see whether she needed help. One guard didn't even leave his chair, rolling it around a corner to stare at the body and then rolling away a few moments later.

Yeah. We have the best healthcare money can buy in America. IF you can afford it. Otherwise, our healthcare system is becoming medieval at an accelerating pace.

The hospital is run by the New York Health and Hospitals Corporation, a private entity that contracts with the state.

"We are all shocked and distressed by this situation," HHC's president, Alan Aviles, said in a statement. "We express our deep regrets to the patient's family and will ensure a thorough investigation to answer any questions that remain."

That doesn't ring true, considering what has been found in the past at this hospital:

A state agency, the New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Service, filed a lawsuit a year ago, calling the psychiatric center "a chamber of filth, decay, indifference and danger."

Patients, the suit said, "are subjected to overcrowded and squalid conditions often accompanied by physical abuse and unnecessary and punitive injections of mind-altering drugs."

"From the moment a person steps through the doors," it added, "she is stripped of her freedom and dignity and literally forced to fight for the essentials of life."

The suit was especially critical of the hospital's emergency ward, saying it is so poorly staffed that patients are often marooned there for days while they wait to be evaluated.

Sometimes, the unit runs out of chairs, according to the lawsuit, forcing people to wait on foam mats or on the waiting room floor. The suit also claims that bathrooms are filthy and filled with flies, and that patients who complain too loudly are sometimes handcuffed, beaten or injected with psychotropic drugs.

I have only one question. Why doesn't the state just take over and run this hospital as a public entity? It's hard to imagine that it could be run any worse than it is now, and at least if the state were running it then we could collectively fire the management if they continued to run this kind of apalling institution.
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