The Big Fizzle: How many things can we enjoy watching for the next two years?

Escher 1

There’s one number that says it all about the mid-term elections in this state (Nevada) and I’d guess it would be comparable to other states as well: 45.51% – that’s the turnout percentage. [SoS]   Voter turnout in 2012 was a nice 80.77%. [SoS]  However, it could have been worse – in the 2010 election the statewide turnout was a miserable 30.12% of active voters. [SoS] Perverse as I am when it comes items in the humor category, there are some things I will find amusing in the next two years as a result of the Big Fizzle.  Here they are in no particular order:

Senator Mitch McConnell may very well want to share more Kentucky bourbon with Representative John Boehner.   Merely because some newly elected senator shares the same party label doesn’t necessarily mean he or she loves you.   Now, who might such hide-bound ideologues like Colorado’s Cory Gardner or the Iowa Pig Snipper Joni Ernst love more? McConnell or Cruz?    As Representative Boehner discovered to his periodic humiliation after 2010, one party can have a majority and still not be able to function like a well ordered caucus.   The Republicans may have figured out how to make the Tea Party candidates more presentable, but they’ve yet to calculate how to make them useful.   I could enjoy watching this scene play out.

Age and craft will be hard pressed to dampen youth and enthusiasm.  There are some wonderfully symbolic things the Tea Party GOP members would like to do – like “repeal Obamacare” however doing so would toss millions of Americans out of the health insurance market, and this won’t be very popular even with the insurance corporations which are now making money off the new customers.   Youth and Enthusiasm will at least want to allow employers to refuse to offer contraception coverage in group plans – enacting this legislation will alienate yet more female voters, especially those of child bearing age – and the husbands who agree with their wives about family planning.

Should McConnell and Boehner retain their leadership positions, they’ll have to face members of their own caucuses who want to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, defund or dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, disassemble the Department of Education, allow the government to shut down, and impeach the President – for something, anything.  Since for many Republicans history only begins in November 2008 they’ll not remember what happened in the wake of the impeachment debacle of Bill (now wildly popular) Clinton, and perhaps not even remember how unpopular their own shut down was not too long ago.

Kids say the darndest things.   If the nation learned to love Michelle “Loony Bin” Bachmann from Minnesota, they’re going to be equally enamored of “Granny Get Your Gun” Ernst from Iowa, or Cresent “Bundy Boy” Hardy from Nevada.  Politicians don’t get elected without talking, and the more the likes of these two talk the more 24 Carat Comedy Gold will be mined from the veins of Republican politics.

Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” spoken by Zara in Act III, Scene VIII The Mourning Bride by William Congreve (1697)   Want to get better turnout in the 2016 elections, especially among women voters?  Keep opposing equal pay for equal work, and opposing insurance coverage for contraceptive prescriptions, and opposing abortion services for women with life threatening pregnancies, and opposing affordable student loans for the women’s children, and opposing increases in the national minimum wage …. that should do it.   And, while we’re being poetic –

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”  Robert Browning (Andrea Del Sarto)  The aforementioned activities like government shut-downs and impeachments are difficult to stop once the Beltway Bovines start moving as a herd.  A free, headlong rush of cattle/Congressmen in a mass impulsive action, makes for great television. The networks will be only too delighted to broadcast these events.  But then there was the Gallup polling which reported the following on December 24, 1998:

“Despite the fact that he is only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public this past weekend, the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s.”

I’m sure the President would like to see a 73% approval rating.  Then there was that 9%-11% Congressional approval rating after the government shut down of 2013.  That would be a drop from the current 14% rating. How low can they go?

Be careful what you wish for,” or was that the title of a Jeffrey Archer novel?   Okay, the Senate will be controlled by the Republican(t) caucus.  Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has already offered some timely advice under this heading to the Republicans in Congress:

“I think the Republicans, be careful what you wish for, because if they win the Senate, they better do something, they better send the president some responsible pieces of legislation or they’ll get crushed in 2016,” the former Democratic governor said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

And what might that “responsible” legislation be? If we assume the newly elected Representatives and Senators want to stay in office?  69% of American voters want an increase in the minimum wage. [HuffPoGallup did a bit of polling of working women and found the #1 issue among them was equal pay for equal work, none of the other items in the open ended poll came close to the 42%.  We’ve known since last July that 92% of gun owners support universal background checks. [TheHill]  One could ignore these, or one could “get crushed in 2016?”

Get the popcorn buttered.

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Have You Voted? Vote today, ignore the pundits tomorrow

ballot box Just asking!  For all the mega-money that’s been tossed into the elections, there is only one poll that matters…and that’s the vote count at the end of the day.   We might also want to give some consideration to a National Ignore the Pundits Day, which I’d not so humbly suggest be the day after any election.

Pundits are on my television screen because (1) they’re available – think Senator John McCain (R- Green Room) and (2) because the producers of the shows know that their contributions will either enhance or assault the Narrative of the Day.   Cable “news” doesn’t just happen – it’s produced.  Let’s take a look at the job description of a “producer:”

“Television producers make sure that television shows run smoothly in all details, and take responsibility for everything from coordinating writers and performers/correspondents right down to overseeing the fact-checking of credit names and titles.” [Princeton Review]

Note, the show must run ‘smoothly’ and the fact-checking is concerned with getting the credit names and titles broadcast correctly.  What the contributors and anchors have to say will be either ‘scripted’ or at least expected.  No one on the production end really wants any major surprises.

Pundits and anchors want to ask questions, but the production will determine the level and type of information made available.  There are a few, a resplendent few, anchors who will actually elicit information of use to the general public.  Because the sponsors of a production don’t care to pay for air time in which their interests aren’t supported, we’d be better off not to expect the national media to do a very good job of getting facts together in a coherent package – and for the most part they don’t.  Public television and local shows tend to do a better job in this department.

Back in 1994 Peter Anderson’s analysis of the press made an observation about the Perfect News Story.  A perfect news story had (1) a celebrity, plus (2) a scandal, which could be simply stated, and (3) engendered endless speculation.  Diving for ratings? Clicks? Hits?  Follow the formula.  And, following the formula requires a production that will fit a predetermined narrative (remember we don’t really want surprises.)  This situation, in turn, creates the vacuity of the national pundit/anchor shows.

Type A:  The what you said then and what you say now inquiry.  The late Tim Russert was a master at this form of vacuity.  A politician’s statement from deep in the archives would be resurrected, printed out on the screen and then form the subject of “Why have you changed your position?”  The question isn’t necessarily a bad one, IF the person answering the question is given sufficient time to respond, to explain why his or her beliefs have changed over time. However, the flip side of the coin is that the format, if carted along to its obvious conclusion, is that changing one’s position is a bad thing and demonstrates the weakness of a belief system.  The unfortunate result is that the only people who end up looking good are the ones who’ve never changed their opinions – often in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Other than taking carved-in-stone objurgate positions never to be moved a millimeter, the only alternative is do take so many positions on an issue that the quotation resurrection process is flooded with diverse and often self-contradictory opinions; see Senators McCain and Paul who’ve been on every side of every possible issue.

Type B: In this model the question is posed with a pre-determined answer.  “Senator Sludgepump, do you think the House Minority Leader’s proposal for increasing the minimum wage is a good one?”   If Sludgepump is a member of the opposing political party, then of course he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea.   For the sake of the example, let’s assume Sludgepump is opposed to increasing the minimum wage, and is only too willing to recite the talking points against the measure.  What’s lost in this conversation?  You’ve guessed it – it’s why the House Minority Leader supports an increase in the minimum wage in the first place.

Rather than truly offering both sides of an issue what the producers/anchors have accomplished is to offer the original idea, shorn of any context or background information, and to challenge it with the opposition’s argument complete with the appropriate talking points.  There’s nothing “balanced” about this.  For that matter, there really isn’t anything of much substance offered to the viewing public.  There is, however, a pernicious element inserted into public discourse in which only the opposition (to just about anything) is given precedence over the affirmative.

Type C:  This third type of format which abets the Perfect Story Formula is associated with the notion that human beings are herd animals.  If the story doesn’t have a celebrity, or a hint of scandal, or doesn’t lend itself to endless speculation, then it will be spiked in favor of that which does have all the elements.   The FACT that there is only ONE case of Ebola infection in the entire United States hasn’t discouraged the cable news channels from spouting off and encouraging that “endless speculation,” some of which has been downright loony.  But, if one network is focused on it then we’d better believe that at some point they will all be staring at that same shiny object.

In this instance the producer will line up all the usual suspects: the opposition leader(s) who have criticisms of the administration or their opponents; the ‘experts’ in the field, albeit some with highly questionable credentials; and, the ‘analysts’ who will explain (interminably) what some bit of minutia means.   What have we missed? We can use the Islamic State as an example.

Explaining the relationship of the Islamic State terrorists to other opposition groups in Syria is a complicated process; the mutations and permutations of the group are based in long simmering territorial, religious, and social disputes, some going back as far as the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 19, 1916, and the diplomatic/military maneuvering during the First World War.  Modern history isn’t any simpler. The migration of the Islamic State terrorists from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq takes more than a twelve minute segment to explain.  Since the story doesn’t fit neatly into the Celebrity + Scandal + Endless speculation formula, and can’t be explained succinctly in sound bytes, it probably won’t be explicated by any major network.  The herd will continue to follow the shiny objects which are easier to explain.

The Type C, or follow the leader, Sunday show journalism – even if practiced on a Wednesday, has all manner of sources.  Want to guess what Fox News will promote – see Drudge?  Want to guess what NBC will promote?  See the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.  And so it goes. The danger of playing following the leader is obvious. If the Leader goes after a dramatic, if trivial, story then the other media outlets must follow lest they be shamed by charges of “ignoring” important news.  Thus the herd is rounded up, pointed in essentially the same direction, and those stories which truly affect people’s lives are demoted to the back pages and the “if it bleeds it leads” items head to the forefront.

We shouldn’t be surprised if this leads to endless palaver about the fizzling frantic ‘stories’ about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, the IRS or other attempts to create drama in the news room.   The formula is perfectly suited to this kind of reporting.

If we put A, and B, and C together the fiction that we are getting important news from our broadcast and major media outlets should be starkly highlighted.

Therefore, the Pundits will be Plentiful on November 5, each and every one seeking to please the anchors and meet the expectations of the producers.  They will be eager to speculate about Congressional leadership, anxious to speculate on matters of political priorities, and yearning to speculate about what these election returns mean for the next great Horse Race Season.  What do all three of these have in common – Speculation. Endless Speculation. The final element in the perfect story formula.

Speculation is cheap.  Any one of us can do it on a daily basis; we could probably keep it up for hours.  Speculation doesn’t require much research beyond what’s necessary for the “show to run smoothly.” Speculation doesn’t require much background information, “just set up the question and let Senator Sludgepump or Representative Mudmire rattle on.”  Speculation doesn’t require reporters on the ground doing journalism at the source.  Reporters cost money, and shows can be produced more cheaply if there aren’t so many of them.

There are precious few news shows which aren’t so over-produced that relatively little information can be gleaned from them.  Find them. Watch them. Support them.  The rest can be safely ignored on National Ignore the  Pundits Day.

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VOTE! Here’s why…

ballot box Here are 50 reasons to vote: Washington Monthly.

Here are more: “Obama outperforms Reagan on jobs, growth, and investing” [Forbes]

Vote, like your right to vote depends on it. Because it does.

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Curmudgeon Junction: Short Term Thinking Long Term Losses

Halloween Pumpkin Want something to be afraid of this Halloween week?  No, it’s not Ebola, nor is it ISIS, nor is it that some undocumented person will cast an “impersonation ballot” at some polling station… it’s Short Term Thinking.  Today’s rant from Curmudgeon Junction is a general grouse about the lack of foresight intrinsic in our economic and political institutions. 

The Economics of Myopia

The whole artificial edifice of Shareholder Value would collapse in a heap if the Management Interests would take a longer view of their corporate health.  When one’s interests are aligned with quarterly earnings reports, and the effect on stock market prices, then what we will get are executives who place cost cutting measures above the long term interests of the corporation.  It will be necessarily more important to lay off expensive workers than to promote long term corporate loyalty.  It will be necessarily more important to engage in stock buy backs than to allocate resources to research and development.  It will be necessarily more important to invent ever more exotic tax treatments and financial products than to invest in corporate expansion.  It will be necessarily more important to conflate the interests of trade with the interests of financial markets.  It will necessarily be more important to accumulate a profitable financial product revenue stream than to invest in modern plants and equipment.  And, this is a recipe for a witch’s brew for short term “results” and long term losses.

What U.S. steel industry?  Yes, U.S. Steel is still in business, but it’s no longer producing 67% of this country’s steel. [USX] Did anyone notice when U.S. Steel was removed from the Standard and Poor 500 Index? [NYT] Yes, the company has diversified, but it also moved in and out of some very risky propositions in the process, and simply surviving isn’t a particularly impressive item in comparison to actually thriving. 

VWonder Bread is back on the shelves, but why did the process have to be such a mess?  Let’s start with what financial writers are pleased to call a “highly leveraged capital structure with little room for error.” [Forbes]  And, we can add in an obsolete line of products – where was the investment in product research and development? And,  we can add in relatively high labor costs – which were cut in return for a promise (unkept) that the management would allocate resources into more efficient plants and equipment… So, the Twinkies got the axe, (rather later than perhaps that product line should have in the face of changing consumer trends), and the whole jerry-built private equity backed operation couldn’t take the strain of having to turn a mismanaged company around in the face of immediate capital needs.

Chevron made much of its prowess in developing alternative energy, it even created a renewable power group (CVX) and then shut the lights down.

“In January, employees of Chevron’s (CVX) renewable power group, whose mission was to launch large, profitable clean-energy projects, dined at San Francisco’s trendy Sens restaurant as managers applauded them for nearly doubling their projected profit in 2013, the group’s first full year of operations. But the mood quickly turned somber. Despite the financial results and the team’s role in helping launch more than a half-dozen solar and geothermal projects capable of powering at least 65,000 homes, managers told the group that funding for the effort would dry up and encouraged staffers to find jobs elsewhere, say four people who attended the dinner.” [Bloomberg]

The renewable power group created a net profit of $27 million in 2013, well above the $15 million target, so why did Chevron pull the plug? 

“When you have a very successful and profitable core oil and gas business, it can be quite difficult to justify investing in renewables,” says Robert Redlinger, who ran a previous effort at Chevron to develop large renewable-energy projects before he left in 2010. “It requires significant commitment at the most senior levels of management. I didn’t perceive that kind of commitment from Chevron during my time with the firm.” [Bloomberg]

Translation: OK, the renewables were making money just not enough money to get the attention of top management.  More translation: the Renewables group wasn’t making enough money in the short term to get management support in the long run.

How many investments banks are there in the United States? If you guessed Zero you got it right.  None, zilch, zip. We now have Bank Holding Companies, as the former high flyers on Wall Street sought the protection of the Federal Reserve to avoid financial oblivion in September 2008. [MotleyFool]  After running, ever so willingly, into the arms of the government in their debacle of 1002-2008, the bankers now want to revert to playing by their own rules – Repeal Dodd Frank – and re-engage in the same short term behaviors which brought on the collapse of the financial sector in 2007 and 2008.

The Politics of Myopia

There’s never been a shortage of self-serving myopia in politics. Ever.  Nor has there been a surfeit of times in which there was less costuming going on in political campaigns than there were little goblins out seeking confectionary items to put in their pillow cases.  However, turning the politics of fear into an art form, is to emphasize the fear and trivialize the long term prospects of hope.

So, we have politicians ginning up fear of a virus – of which we now have ONE case in the entire country  of 330 million people – to secure short term votes based on “Did the administration do enough?” Has the administration been strong enough?”  Probably – given that we have ONE case in a population of 330 million.   Notice, we’re not talking about (1) What should U.S. funding priorities be for the research and development of vaccines for relatively rare viral diseases which occur primarily in third world nations? or, (2) What should be the U.S. contribution to world wide efforts to eradicate viral infections?  Those would be long term questions – and we seem to have the attention span of fruit flies when it comes to politics.

The Media and Myopia

While we’re on the topic of viral diseases – has it occurred to anyone in the management end of public media that Wolf! is not to be carried to extremes, or have we missed that point from the kindergarten reading list?  How many times have we been told that Swine Flu!  Avian Flu! West Nile Virus! MERS! SARS! was going to be the End of Humanity! Or, close to it.   Now, it’s Ebola – and the media circus begins once more.  Has it not taken hold in the imaginations of media management that there may come a time when something like the Spanish Flu – a real pandemic – may creep up on us and because the “Wolf!” cry has been offered up so often and in such a dramatic way, that health care professionals will have trouble convincing the public that “This time it’s REAL?”  Are the monthly, or weekly, ratings really so important in the short run that we’d take this risk in the long run?

How many editors across the nation are assigning people to cover stories for which the reporter is simply unqualified?  That’s not ‘on’ the reporter.  If a reporter turns in a story about race relations in a mid-western city based on impressions made during a few nights of protest, with little or no background knowledge of the historic context, do we blame the superficiality of the reporting on the writer – or on the management which decided to cut back on the number of writers in order to “increase shareholder value?”  How many media outlets retain the services of several persons with a background in economics or finance to craft articles about our economy?  How many media outlets hire individuals with a background in history/sociology to write about race and ethnic relations?   How many can afford to?

It’s one thing to blast the banality of much political reporting – and another to remember that national pundits aren’t reporters.  The pundits are time fillers.  It’s expensive to send reporters to New Hampshire, Colorado, or Nevada. It’s more expensive to send them to Ukraine,  Burkina Faso, and China.  It’s cheaper to keep a pool of reporters in central locations and send “teams” out to cover events – whether or not the team members have any expertise in the regions to which they are sent.

In return for short term economies we get a long term prospect of sensationalized reporting on the dramatic and very little contextual information about subjects of greater long term impact ( such as, the efforts of Middle Eastern nations to come to terms with the historic impact of post World War I boundaries).  Are we hearing about what mega-studies of student learning models tell us about how children actually learn, or are we getting packaged news about how children in one city measure up against children in another on a high stakes standardized test?

Are we hearing about how most bridges in the United States are designed to last 50 years, and the average age of bridges in this country is 43?  Do we know that in just ten years one out of every four bridges in this country will be over 65 years of age, that would be some 170,000 of them. [BridgeReport pdf] Or, do we wait until another one collapses and more lives are lost? 

And so it goes. We’ll shove more and more eye-catching events with less and less context into the great maw of 24 hour news cycles until the information is granulized into particles about which the Time Fillers will offer interminable speculation because that’s what they’re paid to do – speculate. In the short term it’s entertaining – in the long run it isn’t conducive to a well informed electorate.

Worse still, we’ll probably keep doing this until the old song lyrics are true: “I get all the news I need from the weather report.”

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Thanks for your patience. DB will be back shortly.

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Corporate Interests, Consumer Safety?

banker 2 Columnist Steve Sebelius has an article posted which is high on DB’s Must Read List: “Heck opposes ‘junk lawsuits’ ? Since When?”  It’s hoped that after reading this you’ll come back for more information on the Republican assault on your rights in the Courthouse.  Medical malpractice litigation is only one of several categories in which the Republican Party is ready and ever-so-willing to restrict the rights of ordinary citizens to have their day in court.  Failing that, there’s always the option to force litigation on those least able to afford it.

Your Body vs. Health Insurance Corporations

It’s time to remember that one of the very few specific proposals incorporated into the GOP version of health care insurance reform was “litigation reform.”  One of the more recent comes from a Louisiana Congressman:

“Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, is one of several Republicans pushing for the proposed legislation, which would repeal the Affordable Care Act, place new restrictions on medical malpractice suits and provide more access to health savings accounts.”  [LFC]

The standard line from Republicans is that malpractice litigation creates “runaway health care spending increases” because medical professionals order unnecessary tests, and if damages are limited fewer people will have any incentive to file law suits.  However, we’ve known since 2009 that some physicians have ordered extra testing merely to increase their billings, [TNY] and after Texas legislature capped damages costs still hadn’t dropped in the area highlighted as the poster child for escalating health care costs (McAllen, TX). [Wire]  A Florida law restricting medical malpractice suits was declared unconstitutional – after the Florida Supreme Court found that only the health insurance corporations benefited from the restraints. [Wire] And what was achieved by restraining the ability of ordinary citizens damaged by medical malpractice?

Not much:

“Defensive medicine includes tests and procedures ordered by physicians principally to reduce perceived threats of medical malpractice liability. The practice is commonly assumed to increase health care costs. The results of studies of the costs of defensive medicine have been inconsistent. We found that estimated savings resulting from a 10 percent decline in medical malpractice premiums would be less than 1 percent of total medical care costs in every specialty. These savings are lower than most previous estimates, and they suggest that the presumed impact of tort reform on health care costs may be overstated.” [HA.org, National Cancer Inst] (emphasis added)

May be overstated?” They are being overstated. And, they are being overstated in the pursuit of policies which are blatantly aligned with the interests of the health insurance corporations.   Might any Nevadan oppose litigation seeking to hold accountable those responsible for the Hepatitis C outbreak from the Shadow Lane Clinic? [LVRJ/Sebelius]  Would Floridians oppose the efforts of the family of Michelle McCall to hold a medical facility accountable for her death – the result of a case of preeclampsia being handled about as poorly as might be imagined in a nightmare. [FSC 2014 pdf]

Who in Missouri would castigate the efforts of the Schneider family in the wake of a stroke suffered by Jeffrey Schneider, an IT specialists with the Federal Reserve, which caused damage to his speech, the right side of his body, and loss of short term memory – and which was preventable had the physician paid attention to his own notes going back to 1996. [STLpd] Also left un-noted in the hyperbole about Runaway Costs from Irresponsible Juries – the fact that medical malpractice suits are extremely difficult to win.

The physicians and medical facilities usually win in most cases. In one study of 10,000 malpractice cases between 2002 and 2005, just a bit over half (55%) ended up in an actual lawsuit. Of that 55% more than half were dismissed by the court. When all the winnowing was final, less than 5% of the cases ended up being decided by a trial verdict – and 80% of the verdicts were in favor of the physicians. [reuters]  For this, we are being asked by Representatives Heck, Scalise, and others, to voluntarily abrogate our rights as citizens to have our day in court.

Your Body vs. Gun Manufacturers and the NRA

On October 20, 2005 Congress passed a law protecting gun manufacturers and dealers from any liability.  The NRA was positively elated. [NYT]  The vote on S. 397 was 283-144 [roll call 534] The law is a gun manufacturer’s delight, it:

Prohibits a qualified civil liability action from being brought in any state or federal court against a manufacturer or seller of a firearm, ammunition, or a component of a firearm that has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce, or against a trade association of such manufacturers or sellers, for damages, punitive damages, injunctive or declaratory relief, abatement, restitution, fines, penalties, or other relief resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm. Requires pending actions to be dismissed. [Thomas]

Did we notice the damage might have resulted from “the criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm?”  P.L.109-92 protects gun manufacturers and dealers like no other sector of our economy.  Did the safety fail? You have no case. Did the gun malfunction because of a preventable engineering flaw causing an injury or loss of life? You have no case. Did the Saturday Night Special shatter when fired? You have no case.  If your complaint is with a firearms manufacturing corporation – you will not have your day in court.

There are also moves afoot to make being a consumer in this consumer economy a matter of a perverted form of survival of the fittest – or the wealthiest at least.  In this regard the advocates of corporate interests want to remove the very agencies which provide administrative options to litigation.  Instead of eliminating your day in court, the massive corporations would like very much to make you challenge them in court – if you dare.

Your Wallet vs. The Financial Institutions and Big Banks

Nothing so alarmed the bankers and other participants in the Great Mortgage Disaster of 2007-2008 as the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  In fact, a small community bank in (where else?) Texas along with two conservative groups,  were moved in 2012 to file a lawsuit saying the appointment of CFPB director Richard Cordray was unconstitutional and the agency was without “checks and balances.” The bankers also didn’t like the Financial Stability Oversight Council – the one that studies risk in the financial sector. [Reuters]  In September 2012 some Republican state attorneys general were planning “non-cooperation” with the CFPB, following along the talking points made in the litigation. [Bloomberg]  Nothing would please these folks more than the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act, so that the wheels of the Wall Street Casino could be free to spin again.

And what subjects does the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau review? Student Loans, Manufactured Home financing,  Bank Overdraft and other fees… As of June 2014 the CFPB reviewed (pdf) complaints in a variety of financial transaction categories – 34% concerned mortgages, 20% concerned debt collection activities, 14% were about credit cards, 12% about banking accounts and services, 3% were about consumer loans, 3% about student loans, and payday loans 1%.  In other words, disputes about loans and other services common, ordinary, everyday, citizens of the U.S. might be involved in.  

The legal system usually demands that all administrative options be finished before litigation is initiated.  If there is no CFPB then there is one less way for disputes to be resolved at the administrative level – and the individual citizen (the one in the mobile home, in the student apartment, in the apartment house complex…) is left with no option except the expense of litigation.  If the big banks had their way – you’d get your day in court – at your expense, and there would be no agency tasked with protecting you before you faced the battalion of legal forces arrayed against you.

Your Life vs. Manufacturing Interests

Calls for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission are nothing new, they’ve been around since at least 1980. [Sanders]  The Libertarian Party is pleased to offer the following vision:

We oppose all so-called “consumer protection” legislation which infringes upon voluntary trade, and call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. We advocate the repeal of all laws banning or restricting the advertising of prices, products, or services. We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called “self-protection” equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.

Does someone “voluntarily” purchase a crib for an infant which has features potentially lethal for a baby?  Who “voluntarily” buys a four wheeler where the components of the front gear case can fail causing a loss of control and crash hazard?  Or a lawn mower in which the welding on the drive axle can fail, again causing a loss of control and crash hazard?  Would you “voluntarily” purchase a bicycle helmet which fails in cold temperatures?  Would you “voluntarily” buy a scarf which doesn’t meet federal flammability standards? Or a infant’s “hoodie” the drawstring of which creates a strangulation hazard? Or a riding lawn mower wherein the ignition fails to ground and tends to overheat and melt? [CPSC]

What is the response when the four-wheeler’s front gear case fails, the vehicle goes out of control, and the resulting crash causes injury or death? You should have had a degree in Mechanical Engineering before you purchased the rig?  Or, is it if enough people are injured or die in crashes consumers won’t purchase the vehicle? How many have to die?

Again, without the Consumer Products Safety Commission not only is the likelihood of death or injury made more commonplace, but there is no administrative remedy intermediate to litigation.  Worse still, the “pro-business” Republicans don’t even want the public to know which products have been the subjects of complaints.   When the CPSC allowed the publication of its consumer database, the Republicans went off the deep end.

They said: “…that the database “wastes taxpayer money, confuses and misleads consumers, raises prices, kills jobs, and damages the reputations of safe and responsible manufacturers.” Testifying last month before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, Wayne Morris, a vice president for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, complained, “It is wrong for the federal government to allow companies and their brands to be unfairly characterized, even slandered.” The National Association of Manufacturers said the database’s “credibility” and “usefulness to consumers” is “severely damaged.” In response to such criticism (and possibly also in response to Koch Industries, which showered an improbable $79,500 on his campaign), Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, a Tea Party freshman, sponsored an amendment zeroing out funding for the database that cleared the House, 234-187. The CPSC database, Pompeo said, “will drive jobs overseas.” [Slate]

There’s “voluntarism” for us – not only should manufacturers be able to slap together unsafe products and sell them to American consumers, but those potential consumers should be prevented from finding out that other consumers have had problems with the products.  We should remember that then Representative Dean Heller (R-NV) was one of the 234 House Republicans who voted in favor of Pompeo’s amendment cutting the funding for the CPSC database. [roll call 137]

The Ties That Bind

There is a common thread to all of this.  In the instances of medical malpractice and gun manufacturing and sales, it is assumed by the Republicans that the consumer – the average American – must be prevented from challenging the major corporations who provide the goods and services; or at least their dismal chances of successful litigation must be further curtailed.

In the examples of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Consumer Product Safety Commission the notion that some administrative option prior to expensive litigation must be removed for the sake of the manufacturers and dealers. Only those with the financial wherewithal to take on interminable legal battles should be able to challenge the desire of manufacturers to cut corners (“increase shareholder value”) and thereby produce and distribute potentially lethal products.

Nowhere in any portion of these Republican challenges to consumer safety and security will we find any true concern for the average American consumer, patient, or victim. Unfortunately, for the GOP it’s  all about the corporate Benjamins.

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Filed under civil liberties, conservatism, consumers, Gun Issues, Health Care, health insurance, Heck, Heller

A Tale of Two Epidemics

AIDS Ebola

Wake me up when there are more actual cases of Ebola infections in the United States than there are chattering heads on television screens launching uninformed speculative comments.  All this palaver might serve a purpose (other than generating ratings) if it weren’t composed of, and targeted toward, the intellectually disenfranchised.

We’ve seen all this before – Swine Flu, Bird Flu, MERS, SARS – each one a Threat to Humanity! Like never before. Like nothing we’ve ever seen. Except we have. It was AIDS.

By the end of 1981 there were 159 cases of AIDS recorded in the United States, it wasn’t until 1982 with 771 cases reported and 618 deaths that the CDC labeled the disease AIDS and associated it with male homosexuality, intravenous drug use, Haitian origin, and hemophilia A.  The CDC didn’t add women as being a group at risk until 1983, and cautioned blood banks that there might be a problem.  By then 2807 cases had been reported, and 2118 deaths were associated with the disease.

No one was screeching about the need for an AIDS Czar in 1984, and no one was calling for the government to “move faster.” But 7,239 cases were recorded, there were 5,596 deaths, and one Congressional hearing.

In 1985 we were introduced to the tragic story of Ryan White, who was barred from attending school in his Indiana home town. The Department of Defense announced it would screen recruits for AIDS, and actor Elizabeth Tayler, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, and Dr. Mathilde Brim announced the creation of the American Foundation for AID Research in September. There were 15,527 cases reported, and 12,529 deaths.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the U.S. Surgeon General called for a comprehensive program of sex and AIDS education, and more information on condom use. 1986 was also the year in which the National Institutes of Health planned the formation of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group.  Dr. Krim and Elizabeth Taylor testified before Congress about the need for clinical research, accelerated research, and more timely access to experimental HIV/AIDS medication.  In 1986 there were 28,712 cases reported, and 24,559 deaths.

“And the Band Played On” was published in 1987 while the FDA finally allowed condom manufacturers to advertise that the use of their product would reduce the possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS.  50,378 cases were reported, and 40,849 deaths.  In 1988 the federal government finally responded with legislation – the HOPE Act, during that year there were 82,362 cases and 61,816 deaths.  At the end of 1989 there were 117,508 cases of AIDS, and 89,343 deaths.  The numbers were worse in 1990, 160,969 reported cases, and 120,453 deaths.  1991, 206,563 cases, with 156,143 deaths.  Fast forward to another bad year, 1995 with 513,486 cases reported and 319,849 deaths, however the research funded earlier is beginning to pay off in terms of therapeutic drugs and better prevention education.  As of 2011 there were approximately 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV/AIDs and more than 33 million living with the disease in other parts of the world. [AmFar]

There’s been enough hyper-partisanship about the way the Reagan Administration handled the AID epidemic. However, the President was not one to discuss it publicly – not until a September 17, 1985 press conference. There are conflicting stories about whether Reagan moved Koop to speak out, or if it were the other way round.  Democrats in Congress did manage to move the money, from $8 million in research funding in 1982 to $26.5 million in 1983 bumped up to $44 million, and more during the remainder of the decade.  [RCP]   What can be said with some certainty is that the Reagan Administration was painfully slow in addressing the calamity that was HIV/AIDS, and did not adopt a leadership role until late in 1985, some four years after the disease was first noted (1981).

The national media and D.C. press corps weren’t helpful either – Chris Geidner notes 13 instances researched by Jon Cohen during which the press corps erupted in laughter at insensitive comments made from the podium by White House Spokesperson Larry Speakes beginning in  October 15, 1982.

Myth Making

It doesn’t take too many little gray cells to figure out why conservatives are so adamant about “blaming the Ebola crisis” on the current President.  To discuss the executive branch reactions to a public health problem invites comparison to the Reagan years, and the comparison doesn’t polish the lustrous image of the the conservative President.

The Congress passed a budget in January 2014 which severely constrained the budgets for the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, calling for across the board cuts in spending – including research on the Ebola virus. [CNNOn March 23, 2014 Officials in Guinea confirmed 49 cases of Ebola infection, and by March 31 Ebola infections were at an epidemic level. As of May 2014 cases are reported in Liberia, and by the end of the month cases are confirmed in Sierra Leone. [NHReg]

On August 8, 2014 the World Health Organization issued a full-on warning about the spread of the Ebola virus in west Africa, saying, among other warnings, that the infections constituted an “extraordinary event,” and a public health risk to other countries.

The Obama Administration’s response in this instance is to be measured in days, not years. On August 5, 2014 the CDC issued a Level 2 travel alert for travelers to Nigeria, and a Level 3 travel alert notice remained in effect for Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. [CDC]  The agency had also deployed health professionals to the affected area as of August 4th – 6 to Guinea, 12 to Liberia, 4 to Nigeria, and 9 to Sierra Leone.  The CDC also initiated the use of the Epi-Info software tool to determine “contact tracing” to break the chain of transmission. [CDC]  By September 17th the President announced that 3,000 troops would be sent to Liberia to establish a command center to oversee the construction of 17 health care facilities of 100 beds each to isolate and treat victims. The U.S. mission would also be tasked with training 500 health care workers per week. [VOA]

By October 22nd the Administration had launched the deployment of 170 medical professionals from multiple agencies and departments, some of whom were part of the USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team to the core of the epidemic area in west Africa; had scaled up the deployment of DoD teams including members from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center to operate three mobile laboratories providing 24 hour turnaround results on samples.  The Administration had obligated $300 million for fighting the outbreak in west Africa, including funds for the construction of one hospital completed and staffed by U.S. Public Health Service officers.  The efforts also included initiating 65 “safe burial teams” to help Liberians facing the epidemic.  [WH]

The conservative response to these measures was quick and predictable.  One opinion given much air time was that the mission to Liberia wasn’t a legitimate military operation in the commonly held sense of the term, and therefore beyond the scope of “fighting and winning wars.” Another complaint was that the Commander in Chief was sending soldiers, “valuable highly trained war-fighters” just to support health care workers. And, then there was the “why are we sending troops over there when we should be doing something here,” complaint – missing the point that this was precisely the argument for sending more troops to the Middle East in 2003. [MMA]

Meanwhile on the Home Front

Speaking of the domestic front – In March 2014, the Republicans in the U.S. Senate balked at the nomination of Dr. Vivek H. Murthy to be the Surgeon General because the doctor had run afoul of Chris Cox, the head lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.  Dr. Murthy’s experience in hospital emergency rooms caused him to believe that assault weapons do serious damage to human bodies, and that limiting ammunition sales might reduce the number of such fatalities and serious injuries. [NYT]  Right wing pundits called for the “immediate withdrawal of the nomination” in October 2014, so an “experienced professional” could be considered. [PJM]  The ever-media-seeking Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) dismissed Murthy’s nomination saying, “And we don’t have one because President Obama, instead of nominating a health professional, he nominated someone who is an anti-gun activist,” which got an immediate smack down from Politifact.

While the obstructionists in the Senate blocked the nomination, the CDC was adjusting its guideline and issued revised, or “interim,” guidance for hospitals dealing with Ebola infections on August 8, 2014.  The August interim guidance sounds predictive in the case of the Texas hospital which later experienced infections:

“It emphasized that anyone collecting or handling such specimens are to follow standards compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration bloodborne pathogens standards, including wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) and implementing other safeguards.

For specimen collection and laboratory testing, PPE recommendations include full face shield or goggles, masks to cover all of the nose and mouth, gloves and fluid-resistant or impermeable gowns. For laboratory testing, the recommendations also include use of a certified class II biosafety cabinet or plexiglass splash guard.”

Politics and Protocols

The CDC tightened the guidelines further, issuing revised guidance to health care workers and hospitals on October 20, 2014.  It also provided more stringent guidance for travel and airline operations, and prospective patient monitoring.

Back in the Senate, Arizona Senator John McCain issued a call for an “Ebola Czar” to coordinate the response to the cases on U.S. soil on October 12-13th. [Hill]  This would be the self-same Senator who decried the Administration’s appointment of “more czars than the Romanoffs.” [HuffPo]  The nomination of Surgeon General Murthy was still the subject of a Republican filibuster.  No sooner than President Obama had appointed an experienced administrator, Ron Klain, an individual with a solid reputation for dealing with complex bureaucratic issues, [CNN] than the GOP lambasted the appointment as “tone deaf and insensitive,” whatever that might mean; and, Senator Cruz criticized the appointment of anyone. [CNN]  The nomination of the Surgeon General nominee remains in Senate limbo.

All this partisan bickering was highlighted by the October 23rd performance of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) who announced that the Surgeon General needs to be in charge of the efforts to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus, evidently unaware that his GOP colleagues in the Senate were filibustering the nomination of Dr. Murthy. [HuffPo]

While the Republicans squabbled over who should be appointed to what if anyone should be appointed to anything – the Administration continued to ramp up the coordination of public health efforts.

In addition to increasing the stringency of screening measures and travel restrictions,  activating post arrival monitoring, tightening CDC health care protocols, the Administration approved the creation of a Dedicated Response Team to be assigned to any hospital that receives a confirmed case of Ebola, a “Lessons Learned” training and outreach program based on what occurred in Texas, a Northern Command 30 person short notice assistance team to provide service to civilian medical professionals, and the offering of FEMA coordination for federal assistance to meet “needs on the ground.” [WHFS]

Now, imagine what might have been different if the Reagan Administration had adopted the same robust response to those first 159 cases of AIDS in 1981? Little wonder the conservatives are cranky.

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